G. L. Pease
I love used pipes ("estate" is the popular euphemism, but let’s call them what they are for today). If I had a great deal more disposable income, the truth is that I’d still probably chase after those old, well-loved beauties with untold histories. I get a good value, the "hard work" of breaking it in has been done, I can add nice examples of pipes that are no longer made to my collection, and if I decide in the future that I don’t want to keep it, I can usually get most, if not all of my money out of it, or even, in some cases, realize a small profit. What’s not to like?
There’s a potential downside, however, a risk we all take when we buy a pipe someone else is getting rid of. The question, "Why is this amazing pipe finding its way to market?" is a fair one. Usually, I’m reasonably convinced the previous owner simply is moving on. Perhaps they’ve begun collecting a new shape, or another maker, or this piece no longer fits their tastes, or they’re downsizing their collection, or some other completely rational justification for their parting with their gem. All good reasons. But, sometimes, it might be because the pipe just doesn’t smoke well for them.
I’ve done that—gotten rid of pipes because I didn’t like the way they smoked—and every time, I’ve told the prospective new owner precisely that. "How does it smoke?" Not so well for me, I’ll tell them. In almost every case, though, they’ve come back, thinking me some sort of loony, because to them, the pipe is excellent. Different tobaccos, different body chemistry, different packing and smoking methods, different tastes; any of these could explain why a pipe that simply does not work for one might be superb for another. But, that’s not what I’m really on about, here. Quite.
There’s a pipe maker whose work I’ve admired for some time. Budget constraints being what they are, I’ve not been able to find the right and happy confluence of an available pipe and the cash-on-hand to acquire it. Since they don’t appear on the used market often, and generally, the ones that do aren’t quite what I’m after, it was starting to seem unlikely that I’d ever add one to my collection.
That all changed a couple weeks ago, when a striking example showed up on a well-known pipe-seller’s site. It had been smoked heavily, but was still in apparently excellent condition, and was a beautiful representative of the shape I’ve most wanted from this maker. The price was right, so what could I do? I made the call, made the deal, and did the happy dance. (Yes, I still frequently do these things via telephone. There’s something about actually talking to someone who is selling you something that I find comforting, if not downright civilized.) Everything seemed great.
But, what about the disappointment? Wait for it.
The pipe arrived a few days later, and I didn’t even have to open the box to know that I wasn’t exactly going to be ecstatic over what it contained. The smell of heavily sauced aromatic tobacco filled the air as soon as I opened the postbox, as though the hounds of some vanillacoconutmangomelange scented hell had been unleashed with the promise of pounds of flesh and fresh souls to reap. If the box delivered its olfactory assault so perniciously, what manner of terror would the pipe itself visit upon my helpless olfactory senses? (The dealer cleans his wares quite well before shipping. I can only imagine what it must have been like before his ministrations. And, to be completely fair to him, he’d told me of the aroma when I called him, so it really shouldn’t have been such a surprise.)
Clarifying: I’m not as categorically critical of aromatic tobaccos, or those who enjoy them as it may seem. I actually enjoy the aromas of these tobaccos when others smoke them. I’m just, personally, not a fan, haven’t been for a very long time, and don’t find pleasing the intermingling of sweet sauces with the Latakia mixtures I most often smoke. Some people like the so-called "Aromatic English" blends, but I don’t, and I don’t want a pipe turning every bowl I smoke from it into one. For that matter, I’m one of those compulsive sorts who segregates my pipes by tobacco style. Every tobacco leaves its calling card; some don’t care, others don’t notice. I often envy them.
And, yes, I overreact a bit, sometimes for dramatic effect (if that wasn’t obvious), but even a whiff of anything with more than a slight flavoring can drive me screaming into the next county. To make things worse, I’m cursed with a somewhat over-sensitive sniffer, a condition known as hyperosmia. This anomaly can arguably be of benefit to someone whose livelihood is tied to gustatory and olfactory pleasures, but any advantage it may offer is momentarily, though instantaneously swept away when a pipe I really like turns out to be intolerable to me because of what’s been smoked in it before. I’m overreacting again.
So, because of preference and physiology, I’ve always been especially careful with used pipes. In my experience, and others may have a different story to tell, once the wood gets intimate with aromatic sauces for a while, it’s going to be there pretty much eternally. I’ve never had much luck with the ordeal by fire method of purifying these pipes, driving out old daemons by smoking them into submission. Even the activated charcoal and heat technique I developed some years ago doesn’t usually adequately remove enough of the stuff to render the pipe truly "fresh" to my nose. Other strongly flavored tobaccos—Latakia and perique come to mind—leave a trail behind them, as well, but I like those, I smoke those, so their hauntings are not so much of an issue for me, and occasionally, the crossover effects of virginias and Latakia mixtures offer a wonderful surprise. But, a confessed Latakiaphobe and I would likely find ourselves on opposite sides of the Drachma, neither wanting to experience what the other craves, and Vive La Difference!
Back to the box. I briefly considered marking the parcel "Undeliverable – Return to Sender," but my postal carrier knows me, and I’d never get away with it. Besides, curiosity usually gets the best of me.
Still outdoors, I slit the tape, and carefully excavated the pipe from it’s sarcophagus of bubble wrap and packing peanuts. The pipe was everything I’d hoped it would be—and everything I feared. It was a beautiful example of the shape, showing lively grain, deep color, exquisite proportion, balance and weight. It felt great in the hand, and was in excellent condition, having been well cleaned, nicely waxed, and its stem carefully shined. And, it smelled just like the postbox did now, only much stronger, leaving a noticeable sillage (the French word for "wake," and the perfumer’s term for the scent that lingers behind someone wearing a scent) as I walked with it through the house. My nine-year-old noticed. "Daddy, are you wearing some new smelly cologne?" I think he’s inherited my nose.
One thing that will drive me even harder than curiosity, though, is a good challenge, and this certainly was that. How would I approach it? I couldn’t fill it with activated charcoal and stick it in the oven because of the fancy shank applications. I could send it off to a pipe restorer who has some special voodoo for exorcising these sorts of spectres, but then I’d be without the pipe, my new pipe, for another couple or few weeks, and the thought of that filled me with a minor case of separation anxiety. There didn’t seem to be much point in doing the salt/alcohol treatment, since it had already been done by the seller. I briefly thought about getting some aromatic tobacco, and converting myself, thinking that might be easier than converting the pipe. Nope. Not gonna happen.
All that was left to do, from a practical standpoint, was to fill the pipe with the most potent of Latakia mixtures I had at my disposal, and smoke. For those who have suffered through this far, this is where the redemption part comes in.
The first few puffs were sharply dominated by those same strong vanillacoconutmangomelange aromas, but, as I smoked, they began to dissipate. By the time I’d reached the bottom of the bowl, things had improved dramatically. I could still smell it, still taste it, but not nearly with the hyper-amplified potency that I’d expected from my initial impressions of the pipe’s scent.
Why should this be surprising? We’ve all read dozens of times how others simply "smoke out" whatever has been in the pipe before, but as I mentioned, that just hasn’t been my experience. I’ve smoked a lot of pipes much less tainted by their previous owners that didn’t show nearly so much enthusiasm towards their own recovery, and even after dozens of bowls of "behavior modification," retained their old habits. In fact, a friend had a lovely old Castello that he’d acquired used, and had smoked for several years without eliminating the ghosts of Crunchberries past. I was walking behind him one day, noticing the aroma, and was curious.
"How long have you had that pipe?" I asked.
"Five or six years. Why?"
"Smoke it often?"
"A couple times a week, usually." He looked puzzled.
My next question: "Same tobacco?"
"Not always, but always a virginia." Since he only smoked virginias, I would have figured this one out for myself. I left it at that, filing away another justification to avoid such pipes.
This time, though, with this pipe, inexplicably, I found reason for hope.
I filled the pipe again, and had another bowl. And another. Each was an improvement over the one prior. The following day, some of the aroma returned more noticeably, which is to be expected. The wood can have a tenacious grasp on all those aromatic molecules locked within its fibres, and it’s not going to let go easily. A week later, I’d smoked it ten times, and it was really starting to come to life. The pipe smoked easily every time, effortlessly to the bottom, with no gurgles, no wet heel, no issues at all. Still hopeful.
Tonight, as I type this, I’ve smoked the pipe another dozen times, and though those old poltergeists have not completely dissolved into the mists, they are much more transparent, much less noisy, and I’m enjoying the pipe immensely, my enjoyment probably enhanced by the effort required to get here, and possibly informed by an increased tolerance for the presence of spooks. Was the time spent really so much to ask? If I’d bought the pipe new, I’d just now be starting to find its sweet spot anyway, so maybe it hasn’t been such a travail. Maybe I need to rethink my position on the whole matter.
I’ve said it before: every pipe and every pipe smoker is different, and it’s impossible, or at least naïve, to make sweeping generalizations about anything related to them. If you ask 100 pipesters the same question about pipes and tobacco, you’ll probably get at least 101 answers, and they’ll all be right. Why this one gave up its white-knuckle grip on old ghosts so readily is one of briar’s many mysteries. I find I don’t really need to understand, and that’s probably a good thing, because I’m beginning to think, after 30 years, it isn’t really understandable. According to a friend of mine, briar is a magic substance deposited on the earth by space aliens from another dimension so we could enjoy a good smoke. I think he might be right, and that might partially explain why different smokers have such different reactions to the same pipes and tobaccos. Tonight, though, I’m happy to be enjoying a splendid pipe that I’ve wanted for a long time, and that’s good enough for me.
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.