The world of tobacco pipes

The world of tobacco pipes

"I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs." [Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)]

Tobacco pipes - a piece of cultural history

Poets from every corner of the sang their praises. Politicians fought against it - or smoked it themselves. It has divided and united groups like almost no other product ever could: the pipe. The history of the tobacco pipe has even been granted its own museum, in the market town of Oberelsbach on the River Rhone, where the first pipe museum in Germany was opened in 1996.

There are plenty of reasons to scrutinize the history of the tobacco pipe once again. The following presents an overview of the major kinds of pipe and their particular qualities. What are the differences between them, what do they have in common and, above all, which pipe suits which pipe smoker? Before that, however, a brief explanation of some of the terms of art.

Do we need to specify that we're talking about tobacco pipes?

It depends on the context. In general, it can make it clearer that we are talking about pipes that we smoke, rather than pipes used to convey liquids. However, passionate pipe smokers will not need to specify this when discussing what they are doing, so in context, simply referring to "pipes" makes sense. Of course, there is also a difference between tobacco pipes and pipe tobacco! Pipe tobacco can be distinguished from tobacco products more generally, which include cigars and cigarettes, and refers specifically to tobacco designed to be smoked in a pipe.

The structure of a pipe

Since pipe smoking became widespread in Europe in the sixteenth century, the original shape of the pipe has continued to evolve. The shape of current pipes is significantly shorter and more compact. The basic structure of all wooden pipes is very similar: they consist of the pipe bowl, with an open combustion chamber for the tobacco and an attached stem.

The mouthpiece is inserted into the airhole through the stem by way of a pin. Where these two parts meet, many pipes have a chamber where a replaceable filter can be inserted. Off-the-shelf filters have a diameter of nine millimeters and are filled with special activated charcoal. The ways in which the construction of other kinds of pipe differs are explained separately.

Different kinds of pipe

Wooden pipes

Wooden tobacco pipe

Most pipes that are manufactured today are made from wood. Not only is this natural material relatively easy to work with on the lathe, it responds well to grinding and sanding and appeals thanks to the unmistakeable appearance of its grain. Naturally, not all types of wood are created equal when it comes to their use in the manufacture of pipes. Over time, hardwoods have established themselves as the material of choice. These include exotic varieties such as mahogony, sandalwood or ebony. Since the early 19th century, briar wood has given outstanding service to pipe manufacture. Briar wood is derived from the tuberous roots of the Mediterranean tree heath plant (Erica arborea). The native habitat of the briar is the jagged cliffs of the Mediterranean basin. For a long time, briar wood from the island of Corsica was considered to be the finest raw material for handcrafted tobacco pipes. All attempts to cultivate the briar in other regions failed. As the tuberous root does not grow back, the entire tree - which reaches four to eight meters in height - must be sacrificed for the roots. Briar wood is an extremely hard and heat-resistant with a characteristic grain - ideal characteristics for the manufacture of handcrafted tobacco pipes.

In addition to the various woods used in the bowl and stem of the pipe, a range of different materials is used in the manufacture of the mouthpiece. Mouthpieces with a pleasant "bite" are generally made from acrylic. An even softer bite can be achieved through the use of natural rubber. This however does lead to high wear rates, as the mouthpiece gets "bitten through" relatively quickly. Horn and amber were once used extensively, but are now very rare.

Read more about wooden pipes...

Meerschaum pipes

Meerschaum tobacco pipes

The technically correct, but far less interesting name for meerschaum (which means 'sea foam' in German) is sepiolite. It is a relatively uncommon mineral form of magnesium silicate. The largest reserves of meerschaum are found in Turkey, more precisely near the North Anatolian town of Eskişehir. Meerschaum was first used as a raw material for handcrafted tobacco pipes in the eighteenth century. Unsmoked meerschaum pipes are a brilliant white color. Only with the passage of time do they acquire their typical, brownish-gold color through use. Two characteristics of the material make it particularly suitable for the manufacture of handcrafted tobacco pipes: meerschaum is completely impervious to heat and has no taste. This means that the 'breaking in' procedure can be skipped, and it's impossible to burn through the pipe. Meerschaum, just like clay, is however very vulnerable to shattering. As pipes made from authentic meerschaum are very expensive, dropping a fine piece can be extremely costly.

A cheaper option is provided by handcrafted tobacco pipes from so-called "Vienna meerschaum". This is almost a waste product from the meerschaum extraction process: remnants are pressed into blocks using plaster and a binding agent. Pipes made from this material are significantly cheaper than real meerschaum pipes.

Clay pipes

Tobacco pipes made from clay (clay pipes)

The craft of the clay pipe maker is threatened with extinction. For centuries, clay was the most widely used raw material in creating handmade tobacco pipes. With the rise of wood and meerschaum in pipe making, clay pipes suddenly became cumbersome and outdated. Disadvantages of clay pipes include the fact that they are fragile and get very hot when smoked. One benefit, however, is that clay pipes don't need to be broken in. This means that you get the complete tobacco aroma from the first draw on the pipe. Although clay pipes are mostly handmade, they are nonetheless cheap to buy. Pipe smokers take advantage of the lower cost by using clay pipes to try out new tobacco varieties or as pipes for guest pipes. Unlike wooden pipes, clay pipes consist of a single piece only, and can therefore only be smoked without filters.

Read more about clay pipes...

Corn cob pipes

The American market leader, Missouri makes two million pipes out of corn cobs each year. The indigenous people of North America used the same method. Since them, special varieties of corn have been bred for use in the manufacture of tobacco pipes, and are nicknamed Missouri meerschaum. Like clay pipes, corn cob pipes are very reasonably priced and are often used for guests or testing new varieties of tobacco.

Porcelain pipes

As early as the eighteenth century, tobacco pipes were made from porcelain in the town of Meissen. They still retain their long, curved form and their painted bowl. Nonetheless, porcelain pipes are used almost exclusively for decorative purposes nowadays. They become unbearably hot when smoked and the hard porcelain cannot absorb condensate like wood or other natural materials.