Bowl Coatings – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Part I

Drucquers Banner

G. L. Pease
One of the most contentious of the long-running debates
in the pipe community is the issue of bowl coatings. Why something so seemingly innocuous can drive discussions to a fevered pitch is intriguing, since, on the surface, it seems a fairly innocent thing.
When I’ve discussed the subject with other pipemen, the only ones who vocally defend coatings, sometimes quite vehemently, are the pipe makers who use them.

Smokers seem to fall into one of three categories: those who don’t like coatings at all, their presence in a pipe being a deal breaker in their buying decisions; those who prefer uncoated bowls, but won’t turn away a pipe they like simply because of a coating (I fall into this category), and; those who really just don’t care one way or another. I’ve yet to meet a buyer who refused to consider a pipe because of the absence of a coating. So, if the most positive thing a buyer can say is that he’s ambivalent over coatings, and many find them insufferable, why do some pipe-makers insist on using them? And, what are these mysterious coatings, what purpose do they serve, and how can they affect the smoking characteristics of the pipes to which they are applied?
When considering the “why” question, things can get a bit heated. A few makers I’ve discussed this with defend their bowl coatings with the ferocity of a mother bear, and absolutely hate the fact that people, especially me, apparently, bring it up. Some suggest that the coating protects the briar during the first smokes, before a cake is established, a claim that is non-falsifiable at best, and more than likely a belief whose genesis lies in some chapter of arcane pipe-making folklore with little evidentiary support. The only two pipes I’ve ever owned that burned out were both heavily coated by their makers. I’m a careful smoker, but these things burned like Roman Candles. No coating would have saved them, short of a layer of surplus re-entry tiles from the belly of the space shuttle. It is possible that these coatings may help to protect the surface of the briar from careless smokers during those first critical smokes, but I’ve known guys who could burn-out a pipe made from asbestos, and though I remain skeptical of any genuine prophylactic benefit from a thin layer of any coating, I will accept as possible that some limited protection may be offered.
And, honestly, I don’t blame these makers for trying, whether through chemistry or Voodoo charms, to spare their pipes from heavy handed smokers who puff like locomotives and light their tobacco with an oxyacetylene torch. They’ve got many hours of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention expensive materials invested in their beautiful works of art, and reducing the risk, even if only slightly, of having to replace one destroyed by abuse is probably a good strategy.
Some collectors feel that bowl coatings are sometimes used by unscrupulous pipe makers to masque flaws in briar or workmanship, it seems there is little evidence to support this, at least amongst pipes from the artisan makers who do choose to coat their bowls as a matter of convention. It’s unlikely that any pipe maker would risk his reputation by spending the long hours necessary to complete a pipe that has known flaws in the briar, only to cover up those flaws with black goo. Every pipe maker I know has a big box of scrap pipes in various stages of completion, the result of flaws that revealed themselves during carving or drilling. At least when considering quality pipes, this seems to be a non-issue.
A few makers I’ve talked with have said that they believe their coatings to help smooth out the break-in process during the initial bowls. This is a bit of a tough sell for me. I’ve always found that raw briar, provided that it’s processed, aged and seasoned properly, performs just fine, though there are brands that are notorious for lengthy and sometimes difficult break-in. (I wonder if anyone has applied a coating to one of these pipes to see if they can verify the claim of improving break-in. I assume most makers have tried their own pipes both with and without coatings, but it might be interesting to explore different coatings on difficult pipes.) But, for the most part, I enjoy the taste that great briar adds to the first few bowls, so, for me, anything that gets in the way of that is not really a benefit. Others feel differently.
Many makers take a less arguable stance, stating that they simply prefer what they consider the more finished look of a coated bowl to that of a pipe with an unfinished interior—a purely aesthetic approach that either one cares about or doesn’t.
Larry Roush, for instance, a maker whose pipes I am known to hold in high regard, falls into this category. His coating’s raison d’être is simple. According to him, because of his curing process, his pipes’ bowls are very porous, doubtless one of the qualities that plays a role in his pipes’ excellent smoking characteristics. When he stains them, the colour sometimes penetrates the wood, resulting in a blotchy, mottled appearance inside the bowl. He told me, “It just doesn’t look right, and since it penetrates the wood, I can’t sand it off, so I developed my coating. It is 100% edible, and improves the appearance of the inside of the bowl.” Fair enough. His wood, coupled with excellent construction, and a wonderful, open draw, combine to deliver to the smoker a remarkable experience, and his coating has never seemed to get in the way of that experience, so I’m not going to argue.
Personally, I find nothing “unfinished” in the beauty of naked briar. I’ve never looked at a pipe and said to myself, “Damn, that would sure be beautiful, if only the bowl’s interior was black.” It will be certainly blackened soon enough …

Like them or not, bowl coatings are here to stay. In Part II, we’ll have a look at different types of bowl coatings, how they may or may not influence the way a new pipe smokes, why some smokers might care more than others about their presence, and I’ll share some personal experiences and experiments.
Your turn.

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.
See our interview with G. L. Pease here.

More Pipes and Tobaccos Articles

43 Responses

  • “… those who prefer uncoated bowls, but won’t turn away a pipe they like simply because of a coating (I fall into this category)”… Me too!

  • Bowl coating has never figured in to my choices, but I have noticed that some are better than others. I have a Comoy’s that smoked beautifully from the first bowl, coating and all. Yet, my Peterson Irish Harp and Nording Wild Boar both had bowl coatings that gave off a chemical taste for the first 3 to 5 bowls. I thought at first that it was the tobacco, but I tried the same blend in an older pipe and did not get the chemical taste. I guess it is all part of the break in process, coating or not.

  • Great article and a great debate as well. Personally, I have never used a bowl coating for a few reasons. Reason number one, it is not something I have tried out on one of my own personal pipes, therefore I would not feel comfortable selling a pipe with a bowl coating.. Reason number two, I have spoke with customers who just prefer to develop their own bowl coating. I am not in the least opposed to using a bowl coating on a pipe, as I actually think it helps a pipe aesthetic properties. But as stated previously, it would definitely need to be something that was tried and confirmed as non problematic on one of my personal everyday smokers.

  • The presence or absence of a bowl coating just doesn’t factor into my decision. My Ashtons and Dunhills all came coated (is there a difference between being oil cured and coated?) and all smoked wonderfully. Same for my Chris Askwith pipes. I also own three Larry Roush pipes. Larry’s pipes smoke so well for me that, frankly, I could really care less whether he uses Moose dung to coat his bowls. That’s his decision (and I know that before I hit the buy button), and I don’t really care one way or the other. All of that said, if someone was using a bowl coating that wasn’t “natural” and impacted the long term smoking quality of the pipe, then that would be a different kettle of fish. So far though I haven’t experienced that.

  • I own and smoke both finished and unfinished bowls. To me there is nothing as special as that first smoke from a new unfinished bowl. It’s like going out on that second date with a beautiful woman.

  • I do not like them, I have a Paulo Becker Grande Two Spades that was coated, sanded it , evercleared it and smoked it, I say new briar taste is the caviar of a new pipe, every new pipe I smoke I put a thermal gun to it and the pipes , all of them are not consist in the temp profile, every briar has a weak spot and knowing where it is helps avoid burnout, dry tobbaco is very essential in breaking in a pipe, I have used Carter Hall for new and estate pipes that were reamed to the briar, retorted, with great success, in this day and age of instant gracification some pipe smokers want to excel like a champ the first time they light up, doesn”t happen, in my line of work it took approx 5 yrs before a man was competent in his job, smokeing a pipe I believe is the same IMHO that’s my story and I”m sticking to it. The old cajun

  • Like Greg and others here have said, I too prefer no bowl coating but if present, it is certainly not deal breaker. Personally, I would not go to the extent of sanding out the coating, but that’s just me. I do have to admit that the un-coated bowl, to me, looks so beautiful and it almost pains me to put a light to it but alas, the pipe was designed to be smoked!
    As long as the pipe itself has an appeal to me then coated or not matters not, but even better if un-coated.

  • I’ve come to enjoy the breaking in process more with an uncoated bowl. So I think I’ll align myself with the no coat crowd however it would not influence my decision to purchase a pipe.
    Thanks for the great article and looking forward to part II.

  • I prefer no bowl coating or pre-smoked but if it has one i will sand it out or ask if the pipe maker can make me one thats not coated

  • I used to not care if a bowl was coated but I always preferred un-coated. I love the taste of those first few bowls when the briar flavor comes into play towards the end. It is something I look forward to and it makes breaking in a new pipe a joy for me. Today I will not buy a pipe that has been coated, the last two new pipes I did buy that were coated were both Ferndowns and I did not care for the taste at all. Since all the new pipes I buy are from artisans it will not be an issue for me. I honestly cannot understand the carvers reasons for coating a pipe, I hear the reasons they use but it I don’t buy it. If someone is going to abuse a pipe and burn it out, no bowl coating is going to stop it. In the case of Roush, maybe he should use a different type of stain so it does not soak through.

  • Since there appears to be little evidence either way… I prefer a natural interior. I can, however, respect the decision to coat the bowl if the inside looks “off” due to stains that have penetrated the wood. But if it looks good naked then for the love of Merlin leave it alone. 🙂

  • As a fledgling pipe maker, I am currently struggling with the decision to coat or not to coat.
    My mentor in pipe making is insistent on coating all of his pipes and cannot understand why anyone would not want the bowl coated. His reasoning is principally aesthetic but he also insists that his secret mixture, no ingredient of which is not edible (yes people can and do eat charcoal dust)helps protect the chamber somewhat from abusive treatment during the first few smokings.
    As one who stands absolutely behind every pipe he makes, he feels that the coating helps prevent situations in which he has to replace a pipe because some customer smokes his pipe too hot and too early. Given his 40+ years experience as a pipe maker, who am I to argue.
    My personal preference as a collector has been for uncoated bowl. I, like Greg, enjoy the taste of the wood in the first few bowls. Now I am taking on a new role in the equation and have a tough choice to make.

  • The presence of a carbon coating influences my approach to the break-in process, but not the decision to buy the pipe. With a coated pipe I fill it up and smoke slowly and completely; with bare wood pipes I gradually increase the amount of tobacco used by one-third on every full moon. 🙂

  • Excellent comments, gentlemen. Thanks for weighing in. And, I’m looking forward to Part II, myself.

  • It all depends. If I can taste it bowl after bowl, it’s coming out real soon. MM corn cobs have a bitter taste to them. I’ll take a round wire brush and remove as much as needed to get the taste out of there. Most other pipes I have bought new never bothered me. I smoke real easy. I sip not chug. I rarely go toot toot either.
    I trust the maker to do his job. It’s up to me to decide if it stays or not. It has to be pretty bad before I take the pipe to the wood shed.

  • I don’t think they improve anything. In some cases they taste bad or flake off eventually.
    It does allow a guy to cover over stain “oopsy” situations, or ugly looking briar in the chamber.
    As a maker, I don’t use them. Had one burnout in five years now. Not sure if it was wood or user error.

  • I always sand out the coating. Most of the time it’s useless, and often provides a fairly foul taste. Plus it destabilizes the cake building.
    Plus some coatings contain stuff that either never dries (honey and oil) or stuff that just tastes round-out rotten.

  • Looking forward to part II. I’m curious to find out what i might be inhaling. I frown on the bowl coat, but will buy the pipe if it speaks to me. We all know that most pipe smokers favor a “long game” mentality. Building the cake is an exercise in patience that is as enjoyable as the practice of packing and smoking the pipe.

  • I prefer raw wood, no coating. If there’s a bit if stain on the wood, so what — that is much easier to remove than if a coating covers the entire bowl. Also, some of those coatings can go beyond the standard “pre-carb” and are really nasty. Were I to commission a pipe, no coating would be required.

  • I’m would prefer uncoated pipes but I’ve found they are generally more expensive pipes that come uncoated.
    Would anyone happen to know what pipes that is in the 1st and last picture. It’s a nice looking pipe and it’s go me very curious.

  • Good article.
    I find no problem with bowl coatings. If a new pipe I purchase has no coating I may or may not just apply a very thin coat of honey, fill it up with tobacco, fire it up and smoke away very slowly.
    No problems after years of pipe smoking.
    But I’m not a “purist”.

  • Great article Greg… I buy pipes that speak to me, not for the bowl’s coating or lack thereof. I have smoked both types, and find the taste in an uncoated bowl to be pleasant.. Especially when made from pear, olive, or cherrywood. Looking forward to part II, to see just what it is that I have been smoking all these years in those coated bowls.

  • I’ve had both. All of my Petes have pre-carbon linings and all of my Savinellis were bare briar. I haven’t notice quite so much of a difference in them other than the pre-carbon lined bowls seem to break in faster than the bare briar. I do however enjoy watching the bare briar change colors. As for taste and smoke though, like I said I haven’t noticed much of a difference.

  • Strange that you didn’t mention what these coating are made of. What does Dunhill, and a few other makers use? I like them. The pipe breaks in easier.

  • This observation/discussion on bowl coatings is quite interesting and amazing to see so much interest from smokers.
    I have on occasion removed bowl coatings from brand new pipes just to see if there were any flaws in the tobacco chamber. To my amazement there were none. Some of these bowls were thin, some were amazingly thick. Apparently it is the maker who makes this decision on his/her preferences, or a factory policy to do so. Either way it has never factored into a purchase for me personally. I do believe however that quality restorations on estate pipes can be helped with bowl coating to remove any previous owners ghosting of residual tobacco taste. Just my 2 cents.

  • Coatings do 2 things for me…Protect the briar from the elements and enhance some of the beautiful characteristics of the wood.

  • I’m not a fan of coatings at all. I just bought a new Savinelli, and the coating gives a horrible taste. Really noticeable and off-putting. On the other hand, my last two pipe purchases before the Savinelli were Radices — no coating whatsoever. And they both smoked fantastically from the very first smoke. I am very careful when I get a brand new pipe — smoking 15 to 20 1/3 bowls — with each smoke spaced at least 2 days apart. Then I do 15 or 20 2/3 bowls spaced the same way, and finally full bowls after that. That’s the way I’ve always broken pipes in and I’ve never had a non-coated new pipe give me trouble when treated that way.

  • I guess that I am a fan of coated bowls, but it’s not a deal breaker either way. If I buy an uncoated bowl, I usually smoke 5-6 bowls of burley tobacco to start the cake. But, I don’t really care much for burley tobacco. If the bowl is coated, I do typically give it a wipe with some everclear on a paper towel so it is just a very thin coating. On those pipes, I can jump right into my favorite lat-heavy blends which I enjoy immensely. So, due to my break-in process, a coated bowl with my favored blends is preferred.

  • I may be the exception, but I actually don’t really change the break-in routine of a coated vs. uncoated bowl. Nor do I have much of a preference for either. As with every new pipe I take it slow and just like many others gradually build up the cake.
    With regards to the taste, and this may be due to the lack of my olfactory capabilities, I have never experienced that much of a difference. I carry one of two Savinelli’s pretty much all the time. They both came coated and if I detected any flavor difference during the initial smokes, it is all but a faded memory. I definitely cannot recall the bad taste Pauljmjr is mentioning. I’m not claiming he is wrong. I personally just cannot recall experiencing it.
    I also have several pipes that came with uncoated bowls, amongst which two excellent BriarBird pieces, and just like I cannot recall off flavors with the coated bowls, I cannot recall any increased sensory satisfaction of my taste buds with those sporting an untreated bowl.
    When lighting up a pipe for the first time, I pay more attention to the craftmansip, the feel in the hand, the open draw and decide which tobacco would suit this particular piece of briar. Once dedicated to English, Virginias, Virginia Perique or Aromatics, they seldom cross over into another category.
    Could the coating vs. naked bowl discussion be one influenced by psychology more than facts ? After all, if it looks bad, shouldn’t it taste bad ?

  • I do not like the taste of briar burning when breaking in a pipe or even the taste of briar. I do not like to taste bowl coating, either. A neutral bowl coating is fine with me, but not essential to my purchase decision. A nasty tasting bowl coating or stain have kept me from buying a second pipe from a maker unless I can order without a coating. Gosh, we pipe guys can be challenging patrons.

  • Perhaps a double post with “Ask GLP” and perhaps anticipating Part II – but an appreciation of the taste of a good briar pipe is the thing that differentiates briar smokers from meer lovers and puts one firmly on the side of the briar v brand debate.
    An impervious bowl coating such as water glass (sodium silicate), for me, removes all the initial pleasurable taste of a good briar.

  • I actually like the coated bowls! One thing i dislike is the taste of breaking in a new pipe. Have a hardcastle pipe that just seemed to take forever to break in (not having a coating).

  • My turn? Sure-
    I’m an aspiring pipe-maker and I do coat the bowls of my pipes.
    This is a strange subject that always seems to come up from time to time. I often get the impression that some of the pipe-smokers who say the HATE bowl coatings are almost personally offended. As if the implication is that they personally (their name here) don’t know how to smoke a pipe. These same sensitive folk then spend extra time and effort creating a cake or bowl coating to aid in the break-in process. -huh? so why take mine out if you’re just going to add… oh forget it-
    I’ve been working on this for a few years. I thought I had it worked out but maybe not. Maybe never? I do not coat bowls for the cleaner more finished appearance, although that is a positive. I also do not coat them because I think most pipe-smokers don’t know how to smoke and I might be able to save my precious work from their clumsy, savage smoking (gee I hope I didn’t offend any clumsy savages). There are several potential benefits but, I primarily coat the bowls to try to give each pipe a more neutral flavor during the initial break-in period. Neither too harsh nor too woody. So that the experience can be somewhat similar (I hope) if someone decides to buy more than one pipe from me.
    I could go on and on, but I’ve got pipes to make.
    back to you…

  • I started out buying Peterson pipes just because they are Irish made, and they all have coatings. I recently purchased a Savenelli which is not coated. I cannot tell any difference in taste and they are all great smokers, so for me it doesn’t really matter.

  • Great article, Greg, thanks for stirring up trouble” 🙂
    I agree with what I’m seeing as a consensus of sorts – it doesn’t make much difference to me. I just watch out for pipes that have stain on the inside – some Peterson’s come to mind – those I ream!

  • I prefer a raw uncoated bowl, but a coated bowl isn’t a deal breaker.
    I know they claim a coating is helpful for the breaking in process, but
    I’ve broken in many dozens of pipes with no coating, and I’ve never coated a new bowl w/ water, or a thin coating of honey or anything else, I just fill it with tobacco and smoke it like any other pipe and I’ve never had a problem.
    I think it’s all much ado about nothing.
    Some coatings give a bad taste at first, but it goes away quickly.

  • This has never mattered to me in my choice of pipe purchases. Looking for a pipe is like looking for a women. It’s what catches my eye at first. All the rest is secondary. Plus, if a pipe maker made a line pipe that had a high chance of burnout. They would probably go out of business due to the bad reputation. It’s like the Ford Pinto, the location did not do them to well.

  • About a year ago I purchased a beautiful, nicely grained pipe made by an Italian artisan pipe maker whose work I have collected. This was the first time I had ever seen a coated bowl from this maker, but did not think much of it at the time. On the third smoke it burned through. The first and only time I have ever had a bowl burned through. I can only conjecture that the maker was covering up the defect in the bowl with the coating. The merchant I bought it from happily exchanged it for another pipe, however I no longer collect pipes made by the maker in question.

  • I have owned both coated and uncoated and actually I am one that prefers the look of a new coated pipe vs uncoated. I love the asthetic contrast between the jet black bowl and the surrounding finish of the pipe. I compare the unfiished bowl to that of a Rolls Royce with the hood left unpaited.
    With the coated pipes I have owned over the years I have never felt or sensed that the coating interfered with the tobacco at all.
    Another reason I prefer a coated pipe is because I have never felt attached to the experience of smoldering wood during the break-in process.

  • The article was as finely crafted as the pipes about which it concerned. Although I have been a pipe smoker since 1989, when I began studies at NMSU as an untraditional student, during the past two years that my Pipe Acquisition Disorder has developed my collection has grown at an exponential rate to 53 of diverse varieties. I would have several more, except that in the early days of my smoking I bought some no-name Italians I later concluded were coated with something tacky and even polyurethane and therefore harmful to the pipes’ breathing. So, being adventurous, I sanded off the offensive varnishes and found truly beautiful previously hidden grains. As a basic minimalist at heart, I refinished these and other pipes since with simple baby-smooth sanding, waxing and buffing. I gave away the three no-names, all of which were appreciated as excellent smokers. But I have nothing against more quality coatings and look forward some day to making my own pipes using one or another of them.

  • What a great discussion. It’s always fun to see how many other people agree or disagree with one’s feelings on a subject. Personally, I prefer uncoated bowls, however it’s not a buy or don’t buy issue with me. I believe that most of the pipes I buy are coated as that seems to be the trend of the maker today. I love the taste of breaking in a Castello because their briar seems to have a pleasant sweet taste during the break in period. I don’t know if I can mention names, but one artisan gives the buyer a choice when he posts a pipe on his website. If you want it coated, he will do so before shipping the pipe. I believe that’s a great idea and wonder why it hasn’t caught on. If one commissions a pipe to be made by an artisan I feel that the buyer should have the choice of coating or no coating. Thanks Greg.