briar pipe

Smoking pipe (tobacco)

A pipe for tobacco smoking typically consists of a small chamber (the bowl) for the combustion of the tobacco to be smoked and a thin stem (shank) that ends in a mouthpiece (the bit). Pipes can range from the very simple machine-made briar pipe to highly-prized handmade and artful implements created by renowned pipemakers which are often very expensive collector's items.

The bowls of tobacco pipes are commonly made of briar, corncob, meerschaum, and clay. Less common are cherrywood, olivewood, maple, mesquite, and oak. Generally a dense-grained wood is ideal. Minerals such as catlinite and soapstone have also been used. Pipe bowls are frequently carved with a great deal of artistry.

Unusual, but still noteworthy pipe bowl materials include gourds, as in the famous calabash pipe, and pyrolytic graphite. Metal and glass are uncommon materials for tobacco pipes, but are common for pipes intended for other substances.

The stem needs a long channel of constant position and diameter running through it, and this is difficult to carve out of a pre-existing block. Because it is molded rather than carved, clay may make up the entire pipe or just the bowl, but most other materials have stems made separately and detachable. Stems and bits of tobacco pipes are usually made of moldable materials like vulcanite, lucite, Bakelite, and soft plastic. Less common are stems made of reeds, bamboo, or hollowed out pieces of wood. Expensive pipes once had stems made of amber, though this is rare now.

Tobaccos for smoking in pipes are often carefully treated and blended to achieve flavour nuances not available in other tobacco products. Many of these are blends using staple ingredients of variously cured Burley and Virginia tobaccos which are enhanced by spice tobaccos, among them many Oriental or Balkan varietals, Latakia (a fire-cured spice tobacco of Cypriot or Syrian origin), Perique (uniquely grown in St. James Parish, Louisiana) or blends of Virginia and Burley tobaccos of African, Indian, or South American origins. Traditionally, many U.S. blends are made of American Burley with sweeteners and flavorings added to create an "aromatic" flavor, whereas "English" blends are based on natural Virginia tobaccos enhanced with Oriental and other natural tobaccos. There is a growing tendency towards "natural" tobaccos which derive their aromas from artful blending with selected spice tobaccos only and careful, often historically-based, curing processes.

Materials and construction

The material and shape of a pipe has a profound influence upon the aesthetic of a smoke.


The majority of pipes sold today, whether hand made or machine made, are fashioned from briar (bruyère). Briar is a particularly good wood for pipe making for a number of reasons. The first and most important is its natural resistance to fire. The second is its inherent ability to absorb moisture. The wood absorbs water in nature to supply the tree in the dry times and likewise will absorb the moisture that is a byproduct of combustion. Briar is cut from the root burl of the tree heath (Erica arborea), which is native to the rocky and sandy soils of the Mediterranean region. Briar burls are cut into two types of blocks; ebauchon and plateaux. Ebauchon is taken from the heart of the burl while plateaux is taken from the outer part of the burl. While both types of blocks can produce pipes of the highest quality, most artisan pipe makers prefer to use plateaux because of its superior graining. Some pipe makers use Brylon, a composite of nylon and wood flour.


Meerschaum (hydrated magnesium silicate), a mineral found in small shallow deposits mainly around the city of Eskişehir in central Turkey, is prized for its plasticity which allows it to be carved into many decorative and figural shapes. It has been used since the 17th century and, with clay pipes, represented the most common medium for pipes before the introduction of briar as the material of choice in the 19th century. The word "meerschaum" means "sea foam" in German, alluding to its natural white color and its surprisingly low weight. Meerschaum is a very porous mineral that absorbs elements of the tobacco during the smoking process, and gradually changes color to a golden brown. Old, well-smoked meerschaum pipes are prized for their distinctive coloring. In selecting a meerschaum pipe it is advisable to take assurances that the product is indeed carved from a block of meerschaum, and is not made from meerschaum dust collected after carving and mixed with an emulsifier then pressed into a pipe shape. These products are not absorbent, do not color, and lack the smoking quality of the block carved pipe.


Clay in this case is almost always a very fine white clay with low shrink-swell properties, often referred to as ball clay. Top quality clay pipes are made in a labor-intensive process that requires beating all lumps out of the clay, hand-rolling each pipe before molding it, piercing with a fine wire, molding, air drying, seam trimming, and carefully controlled firing in a kiln. Traditionally, whie clay pipes are un-glazed. Clays burn "hot" in comparison to other types of pipes, so they are often difficult for most pipe-smokers to use. Their proponents claim that, unlike other materials, a well-made clay pipe gives a "pure" smoke, with no flavor addition from the pipe bowl. In addition to aficionados, reproductions of historical clay styles are used by some re-enactors. Clay pipes were once considered disposable items and the large quantities discarded in the past are often used as an aid in dating by industrial archaeologists. They were created in huge numbers in Broseley in Shropshire, and the name of Broseley became almost synonymous with this type of pipe. The white pipe industry began its declien in the late 1800s, losing ground to the cigar, brier pipe, and the cigarette. However, the industry continued to produce pipes on a limited scale. In the twentieth centruy, a lower-quality "clay" pipes was made from porcelain slip poured into a mold,thsu known as "slip-cast" pipes. These slip-cast pipes are thin-walled, fragile, porous, of very low quality, and impart unwanted flavors to a smoke. The clay pipe industry in the U.S.A. started in the Colonial era; although best known for later reed-stem and glazed pipes, white clay pipes were also produced.


Calabash gourds (usually with meerschaum or porcelain bowls set inside them) have long made prized pipes, but they are labour-intensive and nowadays quite expensive. Because of this expense, pipes with bodies made of wood (usually mahogany) instead of gourd, but the same classic shape are sold as calabashes. Both wood and gourd pipes are functionally the same. They both have an air chamber beneath the bowl which serves to cool, dry, and mellow the smoke. There are also briar pipes being sold as calabashes. These typically do not have an air chamber and are named only because of their external shape.

The construction of a calabash pipe generally consists of a downward curve that ends with an upcurve where the bowl sits. This low center of gravity allows for the user to easily hold the pipe by the mouth alone, leaving his hands free. This advantage was often used by actors who wanted to depict their character smoking while permitting them to do other business simultaneously. That is why the character Sherlock Holmes, who never used this kind of pipe in the stories, is stereotypically depicted as favoring it because early dramatic productions, especially those starring William Gillette and Basil Rathbone, made this artistic decision. In fact, Holmes, who preferred very harsh tobacco, would probably have disliked the calabash because of the above-mentioned mellowing effect.


On the other end of the scale, "corncob" pipes made from maize cobs are cheap and effective, even if some regard them as inelegant. The cobs are first dried for two years. Then they are hollowed out to make a bowl shape. The bowls are dipped in a plaster-based mixture and varnished or lacquered on the outside. Shanks made from maple wood are then inserted into the bowls. The first and largest manufacturer of corncob pipes is Missouri Meerschaum, located in Washington, Missouri in the USA. Missouri Meerschaum has produced the pipes since 1869. General Douglas MacArthur and George Lincoln Rockwell were perhaps the most famous smokers of this type of pipe, along with the cartoon characters Popeye and Frosty the Snowman.

Corncob pipes remain popular today because they are inexpensive and require no "break-in" period like briar pipes. For these two reasons, corncob pipes are often recommended as a "Beginners pipe." But, their enjoyment is by no means limited to beginners. Corncob pipes are equally valued by both learners and experienced smokers who simply desire a cool, clean smoke. Pipesmokers who wish to sample a wide variety of different tobaccos and blends also might keep a stock of corncobs on hand to permit them to try new flavors without "carryover" from an already-used pipe, or to keep a potentially bad tasting tobacco from adding its flavor to a more expensive or favored pipe.


Metal is an uncommon material for making tobacco pipes, but they are not unknown. The most common form of this is a pipe with a stem and shank made of aluminum, which serves as a heat sink. Mouthpieces are made of vulcanite or lucite. The bowls are removable, though not interchangeable between manufacturers. They are made of varying materials to allow the smoker to try different characteristics or to dedicate particular bowls for particular tobaccos.

Other metal tobacco pipes include the Japanese kiseru and the Arabian midwakh.


Pipes traditionally used by many Native American tribes use bowls carved from catlinite, a relatively porous metamorphic rock. Other stones, such as alabaster or slate, have also been used to fashion bowls.

Water flasks

A Hookah, ghelyan, or narghile, is a middle eastern water pipe that cools the smoke by bubbling it through water.


Smoking a pipe requires more apparatus and technique than cigarette or even cigar smoking. In addition to the pipe itself and matches or a lighter, smokers usually require a pipe tool for packing, adjusting, and emptying the tobacco in the bowl, and a regular supply of pipe cleaners. Pipes also need rest after smoking. Smoking the same pipe everyday can crack the bowl.


Pipe tobacco can be purchased in several forms, which vary both in flavour (leading to many blends, or the opportunity for the smoker to blend their own tobaccos) and in the physical shape and size to which the tobacco has been reduced. Most tobaccos resemble cigarette tobacco, but are substantially more moist (so they must be kept in airtight packaging), and are cut much more coarsely. This makes it rather difficult to roll pipe tobacco into cigarette papers; but finely cut tobacco does not allow enough air to flow through the pipe, and overly dry tobacco burns too quickly with little flavour. Some kinds are cut into long narrow ribbons. Some are pressed into flat cakes which are cut up. Others are tightly wound into long ropes, then sliced into discs. Flake tobacco (sliced cakes or ropes) may be prepared in several ways. Generally it is rubbed out with the fingers and palms until it is loose enough to pack. It can also be crumbled or simply folded and stuffed into a pipe. Some people also prefer to dice very coarse tobaccos up before using them, making them easier to pack.

In the most common method of packing, tobacco is added to the bowl of the pipe in several batches, each one pressed down until the mixture has a uniform density that optimizes airflow (something that it is difficult to gauge without practice). This can be done with a finger or thumb, but if the tobacco needs to be repacked later, while it is burning, the tamper on a pipe tool is sometimes used. If it needs to be loosened, the reamer, or any similar long pin can be used. A traditional way of packing the pipe is to fill the bowl and then pack gently to about 1/3 full, fill again and pack slightly more firmly to about 2/3 full, and then pack more firmly still to the top.

An alternate packing technique called the Frank method does not use the above described layering approach. Instead tobacco is first lightly dropped in, then a large plug is gingerly pushed into the bowl all at once.


Matches, or even separately lit slivers of wood, are usually considered preferable to lighters. Some people complain that lighters impart an inappropriate taste to the tobacco. Because a lighter must be held sideways, putting the fingers much closer to the flame, they can be harder to use with pipes than matches are. However, lighters especially made for pipes exist that minimize or eliminate these issues. When matches are used, they are normally allowed to burn for a couple of seconds to remove the sulfur from the tip, and to produce a fuller flame. The flame is then moved in circles above the tobacco while the smoker puffs on the pipe to draw the flame into the tobacco. Most smokers will follow the light with tamping down the initial and charring lights, following with a relight. There are several patterns of lighting circles followed by tampings. These are often referred to by the number of lighting circles. For example, a 5-3-1 pattern would mean that 5 lighting circles are followed by one tamping, then three circles and one tamping, then one, etc. Other common patterns are 3-2-1 and 4-2-1. If the tobacco catches fire during any light, it should be put out; the goal is to have the surface smoldering evenly.

Preventing Burnout

With care, a briar pipe can last a very long time without burning out. However, due to aggressive (hot) smoking, imperfections in the wood, or bad luck, a hole can be burned in the tobacco chamber of the pipe. It is important to build up a "cake" on the walls of the bowl to insulate the wood and thereby prevent burnout. This "cake" is a mixture of ash, unburned tobacco, oils, sugars, and other residue. While a cake may build without any intention to do so, a common practice is to encourage a cake to build quickly when the pipe is new. A common technique for this is to alternate a half-bowl and a full-bowl for the first several times a pipe is used. Burley is often recommended. Prior to this, a paste or liquid may be applied to the inside of the bowl. The ingredients usually consist of one or more of the following: water, honey, sour cream, buttermilk, powdered sugar, activated charcoal, and cigar ash. The resultant product is spread around the inside of the bowl and allowed to dry. Many modern briar pipes come pre-treated. These measures are subject to much debate over effectiveness and taste.


Pipe smoke, like cigar smoke, is usually not inhaled. It is normal to have to relight a pipe periodically. If it is smoked too slowly, this will happen more often. If it is smoked too quickly, it can produce excess moisture producing a gurgling sound in the pipe and an uncomfortable sensation on the tongue (referred to as "pipe tongue" or "tongue bite"). A pipe cleaner can be used to dry it out. The bowl of the pipe can also become uncomfortably hot, depending on the material and the rate of smoking. For this reason clay pipes in particular are often held by the stem. Meerschaum pipes are held in a square of chamois leather, with gloves, or else by the stem in order to prevent uneven coloring of the material.


The ash and the last bits of unburned tobacco (the dottle) needs to be cleaned out with a pipe tool, and a pipe cleaner is run through the airway of the stem and shank to remove any moisture, ash, and other residue before setting it aside to cool and dry.

A cake of ash eventually develops inside the bowl. This is generally considered desirable for controlling overall heat. However, if it becomes too thick, it may expand faster than the bowl of the pipe itself when heated, cracking the bowl. Before reaching this point, it needs to be scraped down with a reamer. It is generally recommended to keep the cake at approximately the thickness of an American dime (about 1/20th of an inch or 1.5 mm), though sometimes the cake is removed entirely as part of efforts to eliminate off flavors or aromas. Cake is considered undesirable in meerschaum pipes because it can easily crack the bowl and/or interfere with the mineral's natural porosity.


When tobacco is burned, oils are vaporized and condense on the walls of the bowl, in the existing cake, and in the shank. Over time, these oils can oxidize and turn rancid, causing the pipe to give a sour or bitter smoke. When this happens, pipe sweetening is required. A popular and inexpensive procedure is The Professor's Pipe-Sweetening Treatment. This involves filling the bowl with kosher salt and carefully wetting it with strong spirits. It is important to not use iodized salt, as many experts feel the iodine and other additives impart an off flavor. Some people find that regularly wiping out the bowl with spirits is helpful in preventing souring. Commercial pipe-sweetening products are also available.


Pipes have been used since ancient times. Herodotus described Scythians inhaling the fumes of burning leaves in 500 B.C. Romans, and Greeks adopted pipes from their neighbors to the east and they were subsequently used by Germanic, Celtic and Nordic tribes.

As tobacco was not introduced to the Old World until the 16th century, the pipes outside of the Americas were usually used to smoke hashish, a rare and expensive substance outside areas of the Middle East, Central Asia and India where it was produced.

Native Americans smoked tobacco in pipes long before the arrival of Europeans. Tobacco was introduced to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century and spread around the world rapidly.



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