Great Expectations

G. L. Pease
Some pipes don’t treat us well.
They seduce us with their beauty, their charm, only to tease us cruelly, never delivering what they appear to promise. They can be likened to horrible relationships that we keep revisiting, either because of the intensity of our shallow lusts, or because we keep forgetting how bad they were, or because the wellspring of optimism continually bubbles to the surface, and in the reflection of its pool, we see the only the possibility that, maybe this time, things will be different, only to later discover that they’re not. I’ve had pipes like that. Pipes so beautiful, so perfectly constructed, so promising that I cannot help but go back to them time and time again, despite the fact that every smoke is more punishment than pleasure. Don’t think of me as a masochist, please; I’m just naïvely romantic.

On the other side of the pond are those pipes that, according to the conventions of today’s standards, are just wrong, but that smoke brilliantly despite their flaws. Perhaps the button is too thick, or the airway too narrow, or the briar not perfectly, precisely grained, or the gap between the end of the tenon and the mortise floor is large enough to serve as storage for a week’s worth of your favorite blend, or the proportion are wrong, or the blast too shallow, but none of it matters. Every bowlful is rich, dynamic, cool and delicious. These are great pipes, without question, their faults disappearing in the pleasure of the smoke they provide, but we’re not so likely to show those off at the pipe club. They’re just not good "arm candy." The question of why so many of us who style ourselves "Pipe Collectors" aren’t even more proud of the ugly beauties in our collections than we are our latest artisan acquisition would be an interesting subject for deeper sociological and psychological study, but I’ll leave that for the experts in those fields. I’ve got other fish to fry.

I’ve written before about my old friend Duke, who steadfastly believed that a pipe would be a great smoke if we expected it to be. I wish it were that simple. Or true. I wish that I could just think a pipe into delivering a great smoke every time. I’ve tried. I recall a stunning, slightly bent dublin, it’s tight, fine, straight grain flowing down the bowl like the Godiva’s tresses as she rode naked through the streets of Coventry, its top an undulating sea of spectacular birdseyes. Drilling? Perfect. Comfortable? Absolutely. Perfectly balanced, it would nestle between my teeth to become a part of my jaw, and fit my hand like a custom made glove. Everything about this pipe was simply magnificent, and I reached for it often. The pipe had one small but ultimately insufferable flaw; whatever tobacco I filled it with would taste like manure laced with napalm, and that’s being kind.

Every bowl began with great expectations. "This time," I’d promise myself, "it’ll be fantastic. It’s turned the corner, and will finally smoke like a dream." The cold puffs, those few tastes we take before lighting the tobacco, would be clear and promising. Even the charring light would bring hints of the smoking bliss to follow. Clearly, the pipe mocked my optimism, setting me up for the greatest possible disappointment. (Yes, it’s foolish to ascribe sentience to a block of briar, but perhaps no more foolish than believing we can will a bad pipe to excellence.) And then, almost from the first true light, this Decepticon transformed from pipe to flame-thrower.

I tried for well over a year to rehabilitate this beautiful briar malefactor. I smoked it to a thick cake with no improvement. I reamed it back to bare wood with similar lack of positive result. I treated the bowl with alcohol and salt, cooked it in the oven with activated charcoal, soaked the interior with trichloromethane, and even sent it off to a couple different pipe makers for their correctional ministrations. Nothing helped. At all. Sorry, Duke, but expectations didn’t eliminate the smoking torment this beautiful pipe proffered with every attempt. I finally gave up. Clearly, either Duke was delusional, or he’d never had a truly bad pipe, or the power of my expectation simply wasn’t sufficient to overcome the noxiousness of the hell-borne miasma that would emanate from this winsome but cruel goddess, this crucible of torture, almost from first match to final puff.

I ended up trading that pipe to a collector friend who was equally seduced by its beauty, warning him of its vicious ways. "No worries. I can make any pipe smoke well." Good luck. Years later, I saw it in a mailer (you can guess how long ago this was – who remembers mailers?) sent out by an estate pipe dealer in Texas. I called him. “Where did you get that, Steve?” He told me. I knew the guy. I called him, asked where he’d gotten it. In reverse, I was able to follow its trail back to the fellow I’d originally traded it to. That pipe had been on quite a journey. And, foolishly, in a moment of selective amnesia, forgetting its cruelty, I found myself with it back in my hands.

Too soon, painful memories were revived. Despite having been through the smoking hands of several other pipemen, the fires were still lit in this one, in more than one sense. It still captured my heart, still filled me with hope, and still smoked like the business end of an oxyacetylene cutting torch. I sent it back, and have no idea where it ended up, though all these years later, I still sometimes wonder.

Why was I willing to subject myself to the dreadful smoke this pipe offered again and again, and yet again? Maybe it’s because it’s so rare for a pipe to smoke so badly, and I just want to believe that there’s a good smoke buried somewhere in every pipe, if we just keep digging. Fact is, though some pipes are wonderful out of the gate, most will deliver at least a good smoke after a few bowls, and some of those will eventually develop into favorites. Having spent over thirty years buying, selling, trading and smoking, I’ve had a very large number of pipes pass through my hands, and only a few have been real duds, but very rarely has a pipe come along that has caused as much torment as that special case.

Maybe it’s a flaw in my sometimes superficial character. Maybe I just can’t get past the artifice of the external glamour of some pipes, and pay too little mind, in these cases, to the pipe’s true, intrinsic beauty, its smoking qualities. Indeed, even after all these years, the beauty of a pipe will still sometimes overshadow a less than stellar smoking performance. There are pipes in my collection that I know will never smoke as well as expected (sorry, Duke), but I can’t seem to give up on them. They’re just so damned pretty …

As I continue along my evolutionary journey as a pipe smoker, it is with the hope that one day I’ll grow to be somewhat more objective, or at least less shallow, and not be so swayed by a pipe’s physical beauty, filling my racks only with pipes that deliver amazing smokes at every turn, irrespective of what they may look like.

In the end, it’s not the vessel, but the pleasure it brings that truly matters, and certainly, there’s a great deal of that to be found in appreciating the aesthetics of beautiful pipes, the grain, the finish, the sandblasting, the materials, the shape, the meticulous craftsmanship. There’s a lot to be admired there. But, sometimes, by focusing too much on the pipe, we might forget that what brought us to the game in the first place was the enjoyment of the smoke. This isn’t to say that we can’t have both; I’ve got pipes that are both beautiful and superb smokers. But, sometimes, we’re so caught up in the pursuit of the perfect tens that we neglect the less spectacular pipe that might turn out to be our smoking soul-mate.

There’s a saying: “The happiest people don’t necessarily have the best of everything; they make the most of what they have.” Words to smoke by.

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.

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26 Responses

  • I’ve dated chicks that were like that! In fact, my track record with pipes has been far better! 🙂

  • Great article. This topic I think proves that there are some good basket pipes out there. I’ve had one basket pipe, a saddle bit billiard, that I’ve smoked for three years now and it’s always delivered a good smoke. Since I paid so little for it it’s become my driving and working pipe. But, this is just further proof that you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to find a good smoker and also that spending that much doesn’t guarantee you a good smoker. Thanks again for a great article Mr. Pease.

  • I don’t see the thesis as an advocacy for basket pipes – possible to prove great smokers but the odds are surely against it – but rather the trauma of not getting a good smoke from an expensive, beautiful or otherwise desireable pipe.
    This is really a further viewpoint on the “brand v briar” debate – and, for me, a persuasive one (not that I needed persuading); all makers, no matter how brilliant a designer or however possessed of artisan skills, can forecast the taste arising from the briar.
    We plough on in the quest for “the Perfect Smoke”.

  • I am right there with you. One of my best smokers is a 35 year old Dr. Grabow Viscount. I won’t say which one is the worst, but it is a beautiful high dollar work of art. Sometimes we forget that briar is a plant, and there is no way one can know much of what substances a plant will absorb, especially after being in the ground for a hundred years. You pay your money, and you take your chances.

  • Interesting article and as always a pleasure to read. I had my fling with three pipes that were so beautiful but such lousy smokers. Great lines, incredible grain, but the wettest smokers I have ever encountered. All three were from a well known artisan and you would have thought after the first one I would have quit while I was ahead, but nooooooooo, I had to go buy two more. I have seen one of these pipes making the rounds over the last 12 years on ebay and on line estate dealers. It captivates people with it’s looks, but always ends up being traded. I learned my lesson from that experience and now it is smoking properties first and looks second.

  • Some pipes just do not have a good smoke in them. I have in mind two of mine acquired in 1959 and 1973. Neither ever gave better than a so so smoke. I have recently sold one and disposed of the other. Some pipes smoke badly because the briar is too soft or not aged enough, some smoke badly because of a poor tasting stain. You might consider an article about pipe stains and which to avoid. For instance I would never get another Dunhill black shell because the bitter taste of the stain lingers for years.

  • The phrase “crucible of torture ” is particularly accurate. Well expressed.

  • Thanks for all, gentlemen. And, I agree. The last two paragraphs say it all.

  • Oh, and I love the discussions. Keep it going! And, if you like it, “tell a friend.” 😉

  • This is so true. The very first pipe I ever bought, in 1988, is with me still. But for no reason other than nostalgia. It wasn’t that expensive, but it was from a reputable brand. It was cruel to me, and I thought it was just because I hadn’t learned the proper art of smoking.
    Over the years I’ve learned to rehabilitate pipes, and how to properly prepare my tobacco, and my smoking technique. I know now that this pipe will always be a disappointment. It is serendipity that I just happened to light it up this morning, and finally decided that when the tobacco was gone this pipe would finally be retired, and then I logged on and read this piece.
    Life is too short to smoke pipes that treat you badly, and as beautiful as some pipes are, most of my really good smokers and mid-range pipes that give more than you would expect and ask so little.
    Thanks again, Mr. Pease for your insight.

  • I have a beautiful, straight grained, flame thrower also. And like you said, just can’t seem to be able to give up on it yet.
    Great read. Thank you sir.

  • My very first “real” pipe stays with me also for nostalgic reasons. I picked it up in Abu Dhabi in the UAE when I was in Desert Storm. I think I paid $12 US for it. It is now my aro pipe (which doesn’t get much use at all) but it smokes fabulously. From charring light to true light, a little tamp and she smokes to the bottom. I always find myself looking at it when I smoke and reflect on my days in the Middle East.

  • Great article, as usual. And so true. Of my 65 pipes, I have an exquisite blasted billiard that I commissioned from perhaps the greatest pipe artisan in North America. The pipe is beautifully crafted, the blast is to die for, and the engineering is spot on. I’ve been smoking it for two years now, but whatever blend I put onto it, why the smoke is so so. Not bad, mind you. But average in the truest sense of the word. I can not understand it. I’ve done most everything I could think of, as enumerated in the article, but nothing helps, despite a fine cake. I treasure the pipe, but it just does not deliver. I’m loath to sell it, and probably won’t. I chalk it up to the briar. It is an enigma to me, and perhaps that’s why I keep it, on the chance assumption that one day … one day, it will deliver its magic. I’m a patient man. But had it been any other pipe, at this point, I would have sold it long ago. Sometimes I’ll smoke one of my magic Comoys, Ashtons or Dunhills, and palm the artisan pipe, as if it were the one being smoked. Funny how things are sometimes.

  • Thank you, very interesting and well written. The quote at the end is terrific.
    Another dimension to pipe appreciation comes with long ownership and faithful service. I have a brylon Doc Grabow that I bought in the 1970s. To anybody else, it is a cheap basket pipe. But to me, it is the pipe that got me through long study sessions in college, was with me during my first date with my best girlfriend in college, and also what I smoked over and over again when we broke up ;(
    After college, it then travelled with me around the world. I smoked it in fine restaurants and smoky dark bars from Paris to Hong Kong.
    I have since added many “high grade” pipes to my collection, but this pipe always has a prominent home in my main rack. The draw isn’t great, the material isn’t beautiful, but it is one of my favorite pipes.

  • There’s an old saying, “It’s not the bows and arrows but the Indian”. Not true. Sometimes it is the bow. Or the arrows.

  • There’s an old saying. Life is like a box of chocolates. Not true. Sometimes, it’s the box. Or the non-sequiturs.

  • Whats wrong with a little masochism? lol just kidding all in good fun of course

  • I’ve got to think, a lot of times, when this happens it’s a problem with stain or finish. But who knows. Wonder of wonders, I recently got a Missouri Meerschaum “General” and it smokes like crap. By the same token, I’ve got 3 or 4 other “Generals” and they all smoke great. I’ve got two Peterson bents with “P” lips. One smokes great, the other not so great. Looks to be the same finish used on both. No apparent problems with how the bowl or smoke channels are drilled. One just never has smoked that good. Usually, when I’ve gotten a new pipe, I try to break it in by smoking just a plain, straight, non-aromatic burley. But ever now and then, you’ll have one that disappoints. It’s a mystery.

  • Great article.My best current pipe is a Jensen billiard I paid $30 for on EBay – smokes like a dream.I have one Dunhill,given to me when I first started smoking and have never enjoyed it.

  • This may sound crazy, but my personal goal is not to own more than ten pipes. When I get a new pipe and it smokes better than another, I give away or sell the other. Right now I’ve got 10 good smokers, but there’s always room for improvement!

  • Hi there, many thanks for the article and words to the wise there. I have spent more than I should have on certain pipes….the provenance was good, the reputation sound and yet they completely underdelivered. Oh yes, they looked beautiful, straight grains…yadda yadda, but they successfully turned excellent tobacco into something less than enjoyable. Was it me? I like to think not, I am pretty egalitarian when it comes to these things and pretty consistent with the packing etc, and will say that I have had as much pleasure from a couple of Orlik rejects (bought just round the corner from the Bank of England for One pound 25p back in 1977) as i have from the dunhills etc. In fact my favourite pipe is a straight grained Charatan reject (very small blemish, filled nicely)that cost five of those English pounds….lovely weight, beautiful and I have to sign off now as I need to re-acquaint myself with said pipe. Good puffing one and all

  • and one further thought, the one type of pipe that I find most disappointing is the meerschaum. I own only three and well, as the song says, they don’t get out around much anymore….Perhaps it is me?

  • My collection is limited to a few hand-me downs and a cheap pipe from the local cigar shop (I guess a basket brand), and I think they all smoke okay…but now you’ve got me thinking I might not even know what a “good” smoke really is?

  • Well written. My first pipe was a basket pipe from the local B&M and never lets me down! Personally a pipe guy myself, i do love aesthetics, but a good smoke goes a long way!