Michael Brennan Smith
Bowl coating is probably the pipe world’s biggest controversy. Pipe makers assert that the prudent course to prevent burnout is coating the bowls of their pipes even though very few, coated or uncoated, burnout. Carvers want to afford their pipes every protection, feeling, like Bob Dylan in his song, "A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall," that burnout is as sure as rain. However this article insists that rain must fall.
Do carvers see this issue best? In my experience, consisting of owning and smoking 100 pipes of many different brands through 15 years, I have not had a single burnout. 15 years X 365 days X 3 bowls a day equals 16.5K smokes, and not one burnout. GL Pease gathered more extensive statistics attesting to drought, not rain, writing about his findings in this magazine’s "Out of the Ashes" on February 12, 2013, saying:
Most burnouts are the result of a flaw in the briar, usually a soft spot, or a void just below the surface of the wood. When such a pipe burns out, there’s no way to know if a bowl coating of any kind would have prevented it, and if it does not, there’s no way to know if it was the bowl coating that was responsible for its durability, so all we really have is anecdotal evidence. (As I mentioned, the only two pipes I’ve ever owned that burned out had heavily coated chambers.)
I corresponded with several pipe makers and sellers regarding defect rates. Specifically, I was interested in how many uncoated bowls were returned for burnout, in order to get a baseline. The responses were anywhere from a low of "zero in 17 years," (about 3000 pipes) to a high of 15 pipes out of about 11,000 (0.13%). Collectively, the burnout rate was less than 1 out of every 1000 pipes made/sold. Interestingly, one seller replaced 3 out of about 3200 pipes sold last year, two of which were coated bowls. One maker reported 3 returns out of approximately 2500 pipes, two of which he said were his fault for making the bottoms of the bowls too thin. Another maker of about 300-400 pipes per year has not had to replace a single burnout in the last five years.
From the numbers in my experience and those from Mr. Pease, we see that the rate of burnouts is inconsequential. In this regard, displeasure about the coating is the only rain that falls on the customers’ pipe parade.
Dylan continues, "Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?" Pipe maker Todd Johnson saw the wisdom of coating, supporting by the results of his Youtube video "Sodium Silicate versus ‘Raw Briar’ ", as commented on by pipe maker David Huber on the pipe forum "Brothers of Briar." The video demonstrates that a coated piece of briar, compared to an uncoated piece, holds up about twice as long before burning, suspended over a tea light flame. But Mr. Huber said in his comments on that forum that the temperature of the tea light flame is 1300 degrees while the tobacco burning in the chamber is 550 degrees, which is almost a 3:1 variance, and thus hardly conclusive. Johnson’s forecast may not predict the drought of no burnouts, but on the other hand it doesn’t effect the rain carvers fear. Huber, who now coats his pipes, was influenced but not persuaded to coat by Johnson’s video until he was struck by coated pipes’ quick caking and thus quick break-in. But again, posts on the forums do not substantiate that pipes without coating are such a chore to break-in such that the owners wished the pipe had been coated. Instead posts lament the thunderheads in carvers’ minds that augur rain.
The carver may assert that burnout is a fact and that bowl coating remains a prudent measure. But the numbers above show that carvers see gloomy clouds that to them portend rain.
Obviously, there are options to handle this issue to the satisfaction of both parties. But carvers control the matter, and to the best of my knowledge, are not interested in dialogue. The forums, however, regularly have long threads on the issue. But Dylan continues, "I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin." The carver controls coating, and smokers have no thunder capable of contesting that control, but it is a fact that they will continue to agitate for reform, and though the carvers have their forum and the smokers theirs, the complaints and the ill will about this issue will not go away anytime soon. By their presence in the smokers’ forums these threads spill over to the carvers forum, and carvers must also listen to the ire of unhappy customers. The warning of the thunder is not burnout but the antagonism it generates.
Carvers assume they know the customers’ needs better than the customers. In so doing they ignore the buyer, the most important person in the pipe maker/vendor/buyer transaction. The buyer pays for the pipe, and by this the carver earns his livelihood. The buyer should control coating because he pays for the pipe! Let’s say that again. Because the buyer pays for the pipe, he should control if the pipe is coated!
Control doesn’t work because it is unilateral, yet the reality is that in the course of any relationship, unless there is a clear acknowledgement of subordination, control is negotiated by the parties involved.
The carver can only claim that his artistic vision gives him total control over creating pipes, but once challenged by the buyer, a negotiation starts, even if the carver refuses to speak. The issue then is not artistic control but control of a detail for which no statistics vouch.
Castello is a prestige maker. They don’t coat bowls, yet they prosper. Regarding Castello’s methods, Dylan wrote, "I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’ ". Were coatings necessary, why would Castello send their beautiful, expensive pipes out into the rain without them? Perhaps because the rain that threatens to fall doesn’t, remaining in the gloomy clouds that besiege carvers. Pipe smokers looking at the purported clouds see only sun.
I’ve also read that carvers coat because they claim it looks better. Both Larry Roush and Kurt Huhn prefer to coat as a way to cover the exterior stain’s penetration to the chamber walls. The pipe maker is concerned with making a beautiful object, and in this instance coating, though unneeded, is understandable.
It would appear that since many makers prefer the way coating looks in the chamber, they assume that the buyer does, too. I would argue instead that it is the shaping and the exterior of the pipe, especially the bowl and the stem, that command the buyer’s attention. To say otherwise cannot be supported.
But after writing this it occurs to me that carvers insist on this cosmetic because of their picture of pipe perfection and don’t care if the buyer sees this or not; or just in case the buyer shares their perception. Of much more importance, however, is that they wish to have their vision of beauty fully displayed during the few seconds in which a prospective buyer first looks at their pipe. This would perhaps be an important point supporting coating were it not for the impossibility of measuring the buyer’s increased regard for the pipe, occasioned by the cosmetic flourish. But if the buyer bites, money rains, and by this at long last a plausible rationale for coating is made; coating links to sales.
To conclude, it is as unproven that coating prevents burnout as it is to contend that a coated chamber adds visual appeal. Carvers coat as they control pipe making; but in so doing they create animosity. The only substantive conclusion is that they coat to make the best impression of the pipe in the moment the prospective buyer’s eyes first see it. Although we know that this is their perception, the success of which amounts to a grace note in the musical phrase of the buyer’s perception, it is as hypothetical as rain that doesn’t fall.
Michael Smith was raised in a Chicago Southside neighborhood in the 60s, and educated in Catholic schools through HS. He has been a poet since college. Attended Graduate school in the early 80s. He has studied and practiced Buddhism and Raja Yoga, and has been a pipe smoker since 2001.
You may also be interested in G. L. Pease’s take on this subject in his two-part article:
Bowl Coatings – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Part I