By Bob Tate
There is always going to be a raging debate in the pipe world about the cost of a pipe. Some people swear that a more expensive pipe is better than an inexpensive pipe and others will say that price doesn’t matter on how a pipe smokes. I would say that both sides are correct, to an extent. I will admit that I do not own any really expensive pipes. The most expensive pipe that I own, at the time of this article, retailed for $150.00 and that is a meerschaum so I can not weigh in on the quality of briar on an expensive pipe. The most expensive briar that I own, at the time of this article, retailed for $110.00. But I will say this; in my experience, the more a pipe costs (to a certain extent), the better it is constructed.
I would say that a $200.00 pipe would smoke a lot better than a $20.00 pipe, but I’m not too sure that a $700.00+ pipe would smoke much, if any, better than a $200.00 pipe. Regardless of the cost of the pipe, all of them are smokable. Some just smoke better than others. When I use the term ‘inexpensive’ I am referring to pipes $40.00 and under.
If you want to get into pipe smoking don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can’t afford it. You can find many pipes for under $100.00 all the way down to $10.00. I have a few pipes that I have paid $40.00 and under for them and they smoke great. A lot of no name pipes in the $30.00 to $50.00 range are actually manufacturer’s seconds from known pipe manufacturers. You can get Missouri Meerschaum cob pipes in the range of $3.00 to $8.00. Heck, some people only smoke cobs and own no other types of pipes! I own a few cobs and they smoke very well and for some reason, they don’t gurgle at all. Pipe smoking is only as expensive as you make it.
One thing to keep in mind when you are looking for a low to mid-range pipe is, the cheaper it is the more likely chance there is that there are flaws in the construction. Just make sure that you fully inspect the pipe before you purchase it to make sure that there are no major construction flaws. The two main things I look for when purchasing inexpensive pipes are;
1) The draft hole is at the bottom of the bowl and
2) The pipe cleaner test.
The pipe cleaner test is inserting a pipe cleaner into the stem and it should go down into the bowl. Now with inexpensive bent pipes, you may have to play around with the pipe cleaner a bit to get it to go down and sometimes it will not go all the way down into the bowl. There is a high chance that the pipe is improperly drilled on inexpensive bent pipes.
There are exceptions to the pipe cleaner test. It is sometimes very hard to get a pipe cleaner down into the bowl on some pipes with more than 1/2 bend to them, regardless of the price. I tend to disregard the pipe cleaner test on pipes with more than 1/2 bend to them as long as the draft hole is on the bottom of the heel. I have some pipes that the cleaner doesn’t go down into the bowl and they smoke great and hardly ever gurgle.
One of the biggest flaws that I have found with inexpensive bent pipes is that the draft hole is improperly drilled and does not go to the bottom of the bowl. I call this extra space a ‘well’ (Fig 1) because it will collect moisture and dottle in the heel below the draft hole. But even that does not make the pipe un-smokable. I own a couple of pipes with that flaw and I smoke them. I just use a specific packing technique with those pipes to minimize problems that can occur from the flaw. On a properly drilled pipe, the draft hole should be at the bottom of the bowl (Fig 2).
Now a days, a lot of people purchase from the internet. It can worry you some if you are purchasing a pipe online because you can’t actually look at the pipe before you buy it. I was worried about purchasing online for awhile before I actually did so for the first time. A lot of online and mail order retailers will allow you to return a pipe that you purchased within a certain amount of time as long as you have not smoked it. That way you can look it over first and then make a decision. One of the things that I did when I was purchasing an inexpensive pipe online is that I would only buy a straight pipe. Straight pipes are easier to drill. I have bought a couple of new straight pipes online for around $20.00 and the draft hole was always on the bottom of the heel.
Keep in mind that even if you are going to spend more money on a pipe, you should still look it over. The more expensive the pipe, the more critical I am when I examine it. I expect a more expensive pipe to be made better than an inexpensive pipe. I will forgive some flaws in an inexpensive pipe that I will not forgive in a more expensive pipe. I keep in mind that you get what you pay for, so I expect some flaws in inexpensive pipes. I check everything on the more expensive pipes; from construction to aesthetic qualities. I look for fills in the bowl, construction, grain; I look for flaws in everything. Just remember that if you can only afford inexpensive pipes, you can still enjoy this hobby.
I would also like to add; whether you choose to buy inexpensive pipes or that is all you can afford, don’t hate the people that do buy only high grade pipes. We all have different tastes and buy different things. There are also pipers that are more of collectors than smokers. Sure there are a few snobs in the hobby that only buy high end and like to bash on the inexpensive pipes and pipers, but they are the minority. You have those types of people in all aspects of life. The majority of pipe smokers are not like that. Although, at this moment in time, I don’t own any high grade pipes, I do not begrudge anyone that does. If I was able to afford some of the pipes that cost a few hundred dollars or more, I would definitely buy some!
Remember we are all pipers and brothers/sisters of the briar!