Results of the Great Filter Challenge

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In my last post, I laid out the challenge of testing a set of 4 different filters in my new Savinelli 311 KS. I first smoked the pipe for several weeks using the Savinelli adapter that basically replaces the filter with an approximately normal airway. I smoked the pipe twice each week, and always smoked Peter Stokkebye Luxury Navy Flake (LNF). This is a blend that I have previously tried and found to be a nice Virginia flake that had a bit too much of a harsh edge to it. My hope was that some where along the way I would discover a filter that would make it a more enjoyable smoke. The adapter worked very well, and I found the pipe to have a nice open draw that made it easy to sip the LNF and enjoy the sweet grassy flavor that has a bit of a raisin/wine note that I grew to like more than I expected. But the harshness was a constant problem that detracted from my enjoyment of the smoke. For the record, the LNF was jarred in December of 2017, so it had a bit of age on it but was still on the “fresh” side. Perhaps a few years would do wonders, but I noticed no obvious difference in this jar compared to fresh samples I had previously smoked.

Balsa Filters

The first “filter” I tested was the Savinelli balsa insert. These inserts are technically not filters, although as I will explain I believe that they do perform some filtering of the smoke. The insert produced an obvious decrease in draw that I found annoying, but the pipe was still smokable. My first smoke with the insert was reasonable, and I would say that it had only a slight effect in diminishing the flavor of the smoke. Unfortunately it did produce what I am going to call a “green wood” flavor to appear in the smoke that was unpleasant. I’m guessing that as the balsa heats up, moisture or saps trapped in the wood sublimate and joing the smoke stream. I had hoped that a second smoke with the same insert might produce less of this flavor, however I never got the chance to try this because after allowing the pipe to cool for several hours I repacked it and found the draw to be decreased to the point where the pipe was not smokable. I’ve been told that I should remove the filter and wipe it off and let it dry out, but that is just too much effort for me. I smoke my pipes several times in a day and I don’t want to have to take them apart in between smokes. I also want to be able to run a pipe cleaner through the stem between smokes, but that was an issue with all of the filters tested.

As I mentioned previously, I don’t really have an issue with hot or wet smoke, so I can’t say much about those parameters, but I would guess that folks experience too much moisture might benefit from the balsa insert. It clearly collected moisture and swelled as it absorbed the moisture. It also was quite discolored with brownish goo. This is why I think the insert is doing some filtering. By disrupting the airway and creating turbulence, the insert causes water vapor to collect and fall out of the smoke stream. Since smoke is composed of water vapor, particulate matter, and a few soluble components like nicotine, some of the particulates and soluble compounds will come down with the water as it condenses. But it is important to note that this is not selectively removing certain things and letting others through. It is just removing a fraction of the smoke.

PetersonFilters

Next up was the Peterson activated charcoal filter. This was not a good experience. The filter dramatically reduced the draw, which is a non starter for me. I like an open draw. The Peterson filter also produced a significant decrease in flavor. So I was left with a thin tasteless smoke that made me think it was not worth finishing the bowl. Despite that, soldiered  on and smoked 2 bowls with each of 2 filters (4 bowls total). The results remained uninspiring.

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The Dr. Perl Junior filter was initially a pleasant surprise. It did not restrict the draw beyond what I had experienced with the balsa insert, and seemed to produce no effect on the flavor of the smoke. It also did not improve the flavor, as the LNF was still as harsh as ever, but it was the first filter I tried that was essentially equivalent to the filter-less pipe. I was fairly excited about this filter, but then a friend of mine (The Durham Duke) reminded me that it is important to make sure that the filter properly seals inside the stem. I measured the filters and the stems and found that the Dr. Perl Junior filters were 0.016 inches smaller in diameter compared to the Peterson filters. Now that might not seem like a great difference, however I did some calculations using basic high school geometry and found that the cross sectional area of the gap left by the Dr Perl filter was equivalent to a 3/32 inch diameter draft hole, just 1/32 inch less than a typical 1/8 inch airway.

FIlter Fit Problem

 

I next took a strip of typing paper that measured 0.004” thick and wrapped two layers around a Dr. Perl Junior filter this brought the diameter of the filter to the same as the Peterson filter. I used this paper wrapped filter in the pipe and essentially had the same smoking experience that I had with the Peterson filters. The draw was markedly diminished, and the smoke was thin and flavorless.

I was sufficiently surprised by this that I decided to do an experiment and record it in real time for a video on my YouTube channel. I used a small plastic disk which I glued over the plastic end of the filter. This effectively sealed off the filter and made it impossible to draw air through it. I then used this filter in the pipe and smoked a bowl of LNF for 15 minutes with no obvious problem. Some of the critics said that the filter swells to seal in the stem, yet this would have led to a blocked airway. Some also said that the filter would still have smoke pulled through it even though it did not seal. This would have defied physics, but it clearly could not happen with the filter sealed. And when the filter was removed, it was wet and discolored looking for all the world like it had been filtering the smoke. I believe that the Dr. Perl filters when used in a standard filter pipe, like this Savinelli, act similar to the balsa insert. They cause moisture to condense and are absorbent enough to collect the moisture. So while there may be some benefit, it is not a true filtering that is occurring with the poorly fit filter. I was feeling pretty good about myself now, thinking I had discovered something new, but I should have known better.

 

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After going through all of that, it was brought to my attention by several YouTube friends that the Dr. Perl filters are designed to work in Vauen pipes with a Conex stem. In these stems there is a short section at the back of the filter chamber that tapers to a smaller diameter. The Dr. Perl Filters are meant to wedge into this section thus providing a sufficient seal. Everything makes sense now!

MeerFilter

 

The last filter I tested was the Natur Meerschaum filter. I won’t go into any great detail on this filter because the experience was not different than that with the Peterson filter or the paper wrapped Dr. Perl filter. Tight draw and thin smoke.

I had hoped to rig up a device to measure the draw with the various filters in place, but in the end this turned out to be more of an investment than I was willing to make for the sake of this experiment. It is physically impossible to place something in the airway and not change the draw, so it is obvious that all filters will decrease draw, the question is how much, and in my experience there was not enough difference between the 3 true filters tested to make it worth trying to measure. The balsa insert did a better job of allowing a reasonable draw, but it had it’s own problems as noted above.

What did I learn?

1) You have to compare apples to apples

-If you compare filter to no filter, you need to use an adapter or different pipes. This is important because smoking a filter pipe without the filter will lead to condensation and gurgling due to the poor airway geometry. So you might find the filter helps simply because is soaks up that moisture

-The balsa insert is not a filter…sort of. All filters act by disrupting the airflow, creating turbulence, and causing water and particulates to come out of the smoke stream. The three true filters provide a matrix that the smoke is pulled through that will capture this water and particulate matter. The balsa insert does something similar by absorption, although it is probably much less efficient. What is obvious in all cases is that there are no magic filters that just remove nicotine, or any other component of the smoke stream. All a filter can do is cut out a fraction of the smoke.

-The filters have to fit the pipe in order to make a valid comparison

2) There is not much of a difference between filters.

The Peterson, Natur Meerschaum, and Dr Perl (when properly fit) all reduced the draw and decreased the flavor of the smoke. The balsa insert was superior in that it did not have as much of an impact on the draw or flavor but did impart a raw wood taste to the smoke

3) The balsa insert, filters, stingers, and gurgling pipes all have something in common.

Smoke is composed of water vapor, particulate matter and some soluble component. As explained in What Is A Pipe Part 4, any disruption in laminar flow in the airway will lead to water vapor accumulating into droplets and pulling out some of the particulates, this is the reason that gurgling pipes gurgle The same holds true for the balsa insert, but the balsa is able to absorb a lot of moisture. The same holds true for the filters, but they have a large surface area matrix to absorb the gunk. Stingers likely perform a similar function, although they are a mystery to me.

 

Filter Myths or Fact?

1) Filters produce a cooler and/or dryer smoke: FACT

All 4 products tested accumulated moisture. Since water vapor is the primary carrier of heat in the smoke, this would tend to both dry the smoke and cool it before it reaches the mouth. While I did not detect it myself as I tend to always have cool dry smokes, I can easily see how someone that experiences wet smokes would benefit from a filter.

2) Some filters allow a full flavored smoke: MYTH

All of the filters work to remove a portion of the smoke and therefore can not possibly allow for a full flavored smoke compared to no filter. Perhaps the decrease in flavor is acceptable to the filter user, but if you think you can use a filter and not loose flavor you will be disappointed. The Dr Perl filter is misleading in this regard because it is undersized and designed to be used in the Conex system developed by Vauen. If it is uses in a non-Conex pipe, the smoke will travel around the filter and provide a full flavored non filtered smoke. The Dr Perl filter in a non-Conex pipe will absorb moisture similar to the balsa insert, so it may still be cooler and dryer even if it does not filter.

3) Filters do not decrease the draw: MYTH

It’s impossible to put something in the airway and not reduce the draw. The balsa inserts do a nice job of coming close by providing plenty of airflow through the channels around the outer edge. And the Dr Perl filter when not properly fit allows a close-to-normal draw, albeit without filtering. All three filters (when properly fit) reduced the draw equally.

4) Filters are a healthy alternative because they reduce tar and nicotine: HALF TRUTH

If the filter fits properly, it will reduce tar, and nicotine, and everything else. So it does make some sense that this would be a healthier (although less flavorful) smoke. On the other hand, smoking half as much would allow the same health benefit but full flavor.

5) Filter users are enlightened pipe smokers, or those that eschew filters are the only proper pipe smokers: SILLY MYTH

To paraphrase the late fly fishing celebrity Lefty Kreh, there is more BS in pipe smoking that in a Kansas City feed lot. Smoke what you like and like what you smoke. The only way to be wrong is to believe that there is a right way.

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The Great Filter Challenge

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My first pipe was a Dr Grabow which took 6 mm paper filters. After the first box (I think it came with the pipe) I never bought another filter. Initially this was simply a matter of convenience. I could not detect a difference in the smoke with or without the filter, so the filter was just one more thing to fuss with, and I had (and have) no desire to increase the complexity of pipe smoking beyond packing, lighting, and tamping.

After a few years with the Grabow, I made a fateful trip to the Tinderbox at Century III mall in Pittsburgh. The woman working there showed me a beautiful “Irish Second” that is still in my weekly rotation. She handed me my first “real” pipe for inspection and told me that I could look at it but should not put it in my mouth (solid advice I suppose). So what I did was immediately try to remove the stem, but it was tight and I was a bit nervous. She asked “what are you trying to do?” And in an attempt to cover I told her I wanted to see the filter (okay, I was nervous and a little stupid). She took the pipe from my hands and asked, “have you ever smoked a pipe?” in a tone that indicated I was wasting her time. So I just paid for the pipe and left the store firmly believing that “real” pipes don’t have filters.

And I was happy. Without a filter I could run a pipe cleaner through the pipe after each smoke and not have to take it apart. I didn’t need to buy filters, change filters, think about filters…. And why should I even consider changing? Filter supporters tend to argue that the filters give a cooler dryer smoke. Well, I honestly have not ever (at least as far as I can remember) thought to myself “this pipe would be so much better if it smoked cooler and/or dryer.” I can adjust my cadence to make any pipe I have come across smoke exactly the way I want. It is practically automatic as soon as I take the first draw, just muscle memory, but I don’t get hot wet smokes. Well, I also tend to smoke relatively dry tobacco and avoid humectant-laden aromatics (unless Carter Hall counts). A potential problem that worries me is that the filter might restrict the draw. I like an open draw for several reasons, but the most obvious to me is that I can puff slower to account for an open draw, but can only puff harder to adjust for a restricted draw. So I was set to go merrily through the rest of my life without another thought on filters. But then my friend Christian (perhaps I should change his name…nah, he deserves recognition) did something horribly kind.

Christian is part of the 9mm filter cult. You know the guys I’m talking about. They sell off pipes because they don’t accept filters, argue over various filter materials, and generally try to make the non-filter crowd feel like they are missing something. Yes, it is a religion, and they proselytize in a manner that makes Jehovah’s Wittness’ seem lazy. So Christian, my friend, has been subtly suggesting that I try a 9mm filter pipe, and I have been skillfully deflecting his suggestions by mostly pretending that I didn’t hear them. But he recently decided to up his quest to save my pipe smoking soul by giving me a gorgeous Savinelli 311 KS.

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And while it is deigned for a 9mm filter, it does have adapter that allows it to be smoked without a filter. In addition to the Savinelli balsa filters, Christian included a variety set of filters to try.

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So I’m left with a decision. I could just forget about the filters, but Christian will ask and I’m a lousy liar. I can hear the discussion now:

“The cat ate them.”

“But you don’t have a cat.”

“It was visiting from out of town…”

I could just stuff them in and see what happens, but I know I am biased, so that is not really going to be much better than the first option other than I don’t have to make up a story about visiting cats. So what I have decided to do is an experiment of sorts. Below I’ll list the steps, and all of this will be done from the same 4 ounce jar of Peter Stokkebey Deluxe Navy Flake, a blend I want to like, but has always been a bit too harsh for my pallet.

1) Smoke pipe until it is broken in using the adapter. So far I have had about 6 bowls through the pipe and it smokes like a dream. There is a bit of a bowl coating flavor coming through at the end of the bowl, but I think that will be gone after a few more smokes. Once I am satisfied that the pipe is broken in, I will give my impressions of how it performs and write a bit about the airway geometry, the adapter, and what I think of the Navy Flake.

2) Test the filters. Beginning with the balsa filter, I will smoke the Navy flake using each filter and report both on the pipe performance and the effect of the filter on my enjoyment of the tobacco.

3) Make a quantitative measure of the effect of the filter on the draw. This is going to be a project because I will have to build some device that will measure the flow of air over time (velocity) for each pipe/filter combination and compare that to pipe with the adapter installed. It’s not a trivial thing to measure correctly, so I will be looking forward to the challenge.

In the end, I’m hoping that I will be able to make an honest, albeit subjective, decision for myself as to whether or not I get any benefit from the filter. In addition, I hope to provide enough information to help the filter-curious out there decide if they want to take the leap. Who knows, we may all wind up on the “dark side.”

Music, Quality, and Pipes

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In the novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” the late Robert M. Pirsig writes about the protagonist experiencing a string of bad results from a motorcycle repair shop that caused more damage than was originally evident. He noticed the rock and roll music playing in the shop on his first visit, and describes his thinking after finally deciding to take his cycle home and work on it himself:

“The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.”

I have always found Pirsig to be spot on in his observations on quality, and I highly recommend this book. His other novel “Lila” is equally good, but a bit too dense for most tastes. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” however is highly readable and will change the way you think about quality. Despite my admiration, I do have a minor quibble with Pirsig on this point. The music he was writing about was loud rock music and certainly does more to distract than focus thought. It’s the sort of music you want on a long drive to take your mind off the boring task at hand. But I also find that the right music (or other auditory background) can help me focus my thought on the task at hand. When I’m working in the shop, the radio is tuned to jazz, classical, or baseball. I find that these are conducive to quality work, and admit that this might be highly subjective. Likewise, when relax and smoke a pipe I sometimes listen to the radio, and it is one of those three tuned in as I light the bowl. Music pairs with the pipe just like a well chosen drink.

pipesmoking with music

I’m not one of those classical music nerds that can rattle off performances and notice subtle differences between conductors. I can maybe recognize 10 classical pieces and name them on hearing, and there are probably another 10 that are familiar but I can’t quite place. Everything else is just pleasant background. Of course rock and other genres can be equally pleasant, but the music does not resonate with me in the same way. Classical music evokes emotion without thought. If listening to rock or bluegrass (a guilty pleasure of mine) is like watching a movie, listening to classical is like living the moment, but on a purely emotional level. It does not crowd your mind with a story, but leaves room for thought. Many years ago, one of my high school teachers told me the following, Bach taught us the art of music, Mozart taught us joy, and Beethoven revealed the voice of God. It’s a bit of an overstatement for sure, but that is the sort of passion that good music can evoke in a man. And many late winter evening have been spent with a pipe in one hand, a book in the other, and Beethoven whispering revelation in the background.

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I’m also not a stereotypical jazz fan. My interest in jazz stems back to listening to “old time” radio with my grandfather as we drove back and forth to the beach in the summer. He loved music of the 30s and 40s, big bands and crooners. It was that music that first got inside and made me want to listen. My first “earworms” were Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller at a time when kids my age were humming the Carpenters and Three Dog Night. As I got older, I discovered Monk and Coletrain, Davis and Brubeck, and like all good men learned to dislike fusion and “modern” jazz. Live jazz is a completely different beast. It is a whole body experience as you feel the music and watch it move from one player to the next as the theme develops. I first experienced this in a Pittsburgh jazz bar with pipe in hand (those were the days) listening to a group led by charismatic drummer Spider Rondinelli who sadly passed away last year. I must admit that I tend to be a bit more distracted by background jazz music, sometimes needing to turn it off to really focus on a task. Likewise, I need to be in the right frame of mind to pair jazz with a pipe. But when the stars align, good jazz, a favorite pipe, and a quality beer can provide a most enjoyable evening.

Miles

 

Baseball is another story all together, maybe a future blog entry. We’ll restrict this one to music as I make preparations for my (mostly) annual trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival. It was at this festival that I first experienced jazz from other cultures, like the fascinating Israeli drum and brass ensemble Marsh Dondurma.  Not my typical pipe smoking music, but so full of life.

Montreal is where I saw Ariane Moffat breath new life into a Simon and Garfunkle classic during an amazing live tribute to Paul Simon.  Still not music I would typically pair with a pipe, but so very good.

And it was in Montreal where I saw Dave Brubeck perform for the last time just a year before he passed away.  He had to be led to and from the piano, but when he played it was perfect.  I’ve burned through quite a bit of tobacco with Brubeck playing in the background.

Which Wax?

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I had someone ask me about a particular product being sold to aid in pipe restoration. I won’t mention the actual product here because I have never used it. But I suspect that it is a type of microcrystalline wax. So this got me thinking about wax, carnuba, and other things people put on their pipes in the hopes of making them shiny. It is actually a fascinating topic (well, interesting… maybe). Waxes are some of the most complex chemical mixtures we encounter in day to day life, and their properties can be fine tuned to suit many purposes ranging from polishing pipes to raising the meting temperature of chocolate bars.

Wax with the correct properties makes an ideal coating for briar pipes. It is waterproof, hard enough to offer some protection and repel dirt that would otherwise stain the wood, and can be polished to a gloss finish. Carnuba really shines (pun alert) in all of these properties and I’ll get into those sorts of details below.

Waxes are defined as being organic compounds (i.e. carbon based) that contain long alkyl chains. There can be some other stuff mixed in like lipids (fats) or alcohols (booze) but we are going to ignore that and focus on the alkyl chains since they determine many of the important properties of a wax. Alkyl chains are basically hydrocarbon chains and they can be long straight molecules or they can be filled with kinks and branches.

AlkylChains

The straight chain example above shows 2 alkyl chains linked by an ester (that oxygen “O” at the far right of the structure) This is typical of naturally occurring wax made by plants (e.g. carnuba) or animals (beeswax). The branched chain example is a pure hydrocarbon (i.e. only contains carbon and hydrogen) and this is typical of wax derived from petroleum (e.g. paraffin).

The melting point (the temperature at which the wax becomes a liquid) of wax is highly correlated with the length of the alkyl chains. The longer the chains, the higher the melting point. Also branching and kinking of the chain impacts on the melting point. This means that wax can be engineered to melt in a particular temperature range. The other important feature of wax is the hardness which is largely determined by the other stuff like lipids mentioned above. For example, the addition of a bit of mineral oil to hard paraffin wax can produce a softer wax like that found in ChapStick. ChapStick is a more complicated mixture, but that is the basic idea.

Beeswax

Beeswax is a natural wax made by bees in the construction of hives. Like other natural waxes, it is a complex mixture of long chain alkyl esters, with Triacontanyl palmitate being the primary component.

BeesWax

Beeswax melts at around 145○ F and is relatively soft. It is an incredibly versatile and useful wax that shows up in everything from candles to surgical wax. It is waterproof and can be polished to a gloss finish, but it is not hard enough to provide a lasting protective coating on pipes. It is handy as a tenon lubricant when used in very small amounts, however you should do this with great care as any significant buildup of wax at the tenon-mortise junction can lead to a cracked shank on the pipe. For this reason, the use of beeswax to tighten a loose tenon by applying a larger amount is discouraged.

Carnuba wax

Carnuba is a plant wax derived from the Carnuba Palm (Copernicia prunifera). It is a complex mixture of long chain alkyl esters such as Myricyl Cerotate with chain lengths as high as 30 carbon atoms long.

Carnuba

Carnuba is a very hard wax that is prized for its protective properties. It is used in a number of products including car waxes and coating of tablets in the pharmaceutical industry. The melting point of carnuba is around 185○ F making the highest melting point natural wax. Carnuba checks all of the boxes for briar pipes. It is waterproof, highly durable, and can be polished to a high gloss. Unfortunately the high melting point of carnuba necessitates the use of a buffing wheel to apply the wax to the pipe. The wheel creates enough friction to melt the wax such that it can be applied in a thin uniform coat. This puts it outside of the ability of many pipe smokers to use despite it being a superior finish.

Microcrystalline wax

Paraffin wax is a product of petroleum distillation and is primarily composed of straight hydrocarbons. When paraffin wax solidifies it forms a macrocrystalline structure (i.e. it s composed of large crystals of wax molecules). Other products of petroleum distillation include isoparaffinic (branched) and napthenic (cyclic) hydrocarbons. When wax composed of these compounds solidifies, it forms a microcrystalline structure.

Microcrystalline

The structure of these waxes leads to some interesting properties. However I need to add a caveat here that there are many formulations of microcrystalline wax and the properties can vary dramatically. For the formulations that would be useful for pipe use, they tend to have a higher melting point than paraffin and the value can be as high as 200○ F. They tend to be very hard and can produce a hard coating. And because of the microcrystalline structure, they can be applied by hand. Essentially, the microcrystals spread out into a uniform coat without melting. However, this can also be a negative as the coating can also be rubbed off with relatively little effort. These properties make it a reasonable wax for pipe maintenance and restoration in that it creates a protective waterproof coating that is relatively durable and can be buffed to a high gloss. However, the coating will not last as long as carnuba. These waxes also tend to have an unpleasant odor taste. Some people find the odor offensive enough that they will not use the product, and the taste issue makes microcrystalline was a poor choice for protecting ebonite stems.

Despite these issues, I successfully used both Halcyon II and Renaissance wax for pipe restoration for a number of years before investing in a buffing station. They provide a reasonable alternative for home use, and while there is a bit of an unpleasant odor associated with the products, I find that it dissipates in a few hours. I still occasionally use Halcyon II on rusticated pipes when I want a less glossy finish. If you want to repair and restore pipes professionally, or you want to get serious about maintaining your own pipe collection, then I highly recommend investing in a variable speed buffer that will allow you to use carnuba wax. But if you are just starting out, the microcrystalline waxes are an excellent alternative.

Writing About Writing About Pipes

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I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in terms of the number of reads each of these blog posts gets over time. Posts about tobacco get a lot more attention than posts about pipes. That is not, in retrospect, very surprising. I think that most pipe smokers are more interested in what they believe provides smoking enjoyment (i.e. their tobacco) and don’t care to think much about pipes other than aesthetics. This is similar to how folks that enjoy a good meal at a restaurant probably pay little attention to the plates and silverware when describing the experience to friends the next day. Now if I was interested in simply getting more and more people to read my blog, it would make sense to focus more and more on tobacco. But that is not my goal. I write about what interests me, and if it is of interest to a few other people then I consider that to be time well spent. The writing process forces me to think cleanly about the things I am interested in and to describe them in a way that is relatively accessible. Currently I’m interested in pipes as tools from both a historical and a scientific perspective. The writing I’ve done in my “What is a Pipe” series had helped me solidify thoughts I’ve had on chamber and airway design that would have remained intuition had I not done the research and writing. In other words, I write because I am a selfish son of a gun.

It turns out that writing takes time. And while writing about something you enjoy like pipes or tobacco is, in itself enjoyable, it seems to take more time than writing about something less important. I like to be sure about technical or historical details, and that takes a lot of time. And, while it might not be apparent in the final product, I like to write with care and choose words and phrases that not only convey information but are easy and perhaps even enjoyable to read. Get to the point Mike… writing these blog posts takes time and I am running low on spare time these days.

I’m not looking for sympathy (and certainly don’t want pity), but I want you to understand why my blog writing is going to be a bit less frequent. I work a full time job as a research scientist running a laboratory and have responsibility for several projects and collaborations. This is a good thing as I love my work and am blessed to do something I truly enjoy. Science was my first love, and she has been a perfect mistress (don’t tell my wife). I also run a small side business at CaneRodPipes.com doing pipe repair and restorations. Again, I am privileged to do this work as I love the process and enjoy getting an old friend back in service for my customers. Pipes were my second love (don’t tell my wife or science), and to be able to sustain a hobby simply by doing it is a wonderful thing. And related to this I write this blog and maintain the CaneRodPiper YouTube channel as a way to stay in touch with friends and customers.

While I enjoy every minute of every day, I do need to budget time carefully, and lately I have had to overdraw on several accounts. Unfortunately the ones that tend to take the hit are my wonderful long-suffering wife and time for exercise and relaxation. Balance and moderation are important in life, and we all should strive to make time for ourselves and for those we love. And that is exactly what I am going to do. Starting immediately I will be aiming to publish two blog posts each month, and will probably limit my YouTube presence to twice a month. I’m not going anywhere, just taking some time for the things that are important. If you miss me, you can always get in touch through my web page or through the comments.

Now go do something nice for yourself!

The Pipe as a Friend

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I am coveting another man’s pipe. Well, to be fair I don’t know the guy, and he (as of this writing) does not yet own the pipe. But I have fallen in love with…no, full confession, I am lusting after a pipe I will never own.

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The pipe above if by the great carver Hans “Former” Nielsen. If you want to see more of it, or buy it (if you want to be “that guy”) you can do so here at SmokingPipes.com . If you don’t know who Former is, you should and can learn more about him on Pipedia  or can check out this excellent interview on YouTube

This oval shank billiard check all of my boxes. Its a straight pipe with a squat pot-like bowl perfectly proportioned to the shank. The pipe has interest in that it is not just a standard billiard but has a beautifully executed oval shank. The stem is a work of art and looks very comfortable. And the grain is simply stunning. I’ve never smoked a Former pipe, but based on his lineage I trust that it smokes like a dream. And I love pipe history, so the connection to Former and the Danish school is a huge plus for me. So why don’t I buy it? Well, to be blunt I simply will not spend that much on a pipe.

If you have followed my “What is a Pipe” series, you probably have gotten a sense of how I think of pipes. To me, they are tools. I know from the world of woodworking that there are good tools, and bad tools, and beautiful tools. But there are also tools that are priced higher because of the name on the tool. I think it would be a bit silly to buy a chisel that I didn’t intend to use, to hit with a mallet, to sharpen, and possibly one day exhaust. To me, the quality of the tool is much more important than the name on the tool. Likewise I want a pipe that smokes well. It should be pleasing to look at, and feel good in my hand and between my teeth. Beyond that I don’t care if it is stamped Grabow or Dunhill. In other words, I am a pipe smoker, not a pipe collector. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a pipe collector, it’s just a different hobby.

I’ve heard folks discuss the difference between a “tobacco guy” and a “pipe guy.” The tobacco guy is focused on the tobaccos he smokes. He is constantly looking for new blends to try and accumulates a diverse cellar of blends enjoying the different experiences that each brings. Of course the tobacco guy has his favorite pipes and enjoys a new pipe acquisition, but it is the tobacco that drives his interest in the hobby. On the other end of the continuum is the pipe guy. To him it’s all about the pipe and he may prefer one maker over all others, focus on a particular shape or style, or perhaps obsess over the design of the button on the stem. And yes the pipe guy enjoys his tobacco, but is less driven to try every new blend that appears. His cellar will tend to be more deep than wide with a focus on a few favorite blends, or types of tobacco. It’s not a black or white thing, and most people are somewhere between the two extremes, however most people lean to one side or the other. I am a pipe guy.

My pipes are like friends. I remember when I met each one and how we got to know each other during the break in process. And just as I have friends that I can enjoy a baseball game with, and others that enjoy a classic film, I have pipes that go well with burley, and others that appreciate a Virginia perique. And like friends, I enjoy getting to know them better with each encounter. Learning what makes them tick. I will almost always choose a pipe first and then decide what tobacco I will smoke. After all, a good host wouldn’t force his interest when a friend drops by.

We find our friends in the circles we travel. I’m sure that there are many hundreds if not thousands of people out there that would be like minded and make great friends, but we will never meet. They may be geographically isolated from me, or travel in different social circles, or perhaps we just never cross paths. Likewise, there are many many pipes that I shall never smoke. They may be lost in someone’s dusty attic, or bought by someone before I had the chance, or priced outside of what I consider a reasonable expense for a tool. And while I can fantasize about attending a Phillies game with Steve Carlton, or smoking a pipe made by Sixten Ivarsson, I accept that these are fantasy. The secrete to happiness is to be thankful for the friends we have. And if you are lucky enough to be the friend of that Former billiard, then I wish you many happy smokes.

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A Defense of (God help me) Aromatics

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As I write this, I am smoking cherry flavored pipe tobacco. Anyone that knows me will understand how difficult it was for me to write that sentence.

I began my pipe smoking journey, the way many do, with a Dr Grabow pipe and a pouch of Captain Black White Label. For over a year I had one pipe and one tobacco, and I was content. Then one fateful day curiosity got the best of me (it seldom gets the worst) I wondered into a tobacco shop in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh and received my first formal pipe smoking lesson.

The teacher could not have been a more incongruent subject in my life. You are expecting me to describe some kind and wise bearded gentleman puffing on a Dunhill-ish briar as he explained the secrets of the leaf. But in reality I was met by a gruff octogenarian woman smoking a corn cob pipe. I swear to you that this is true!

I never knew her name, or had much of a conversation with her beyond what I am about to describe. In fact, I don’t think she liked me very much. But then again, she was the sort of person that you wouldn’t expect to like many. The phrase “tough love” comes to mind. But I will be eternally grateful to that dear woman for the lesson she gave me in tobacco.

The counter, a large U-shaped structure that filled the center of the shop, was lined with jars of tobacco. I was overwhelmed with choice and just sort of stared at the jars until she broke the ice with “What do you want?” In those 4 words she made it clear that I was interrupting and inconveniencing her by having the audacity to enter her shop (yikes!) I blurted out something about never buying tobacco from jars and she quickly took me on a tour of the tobaccos. “We have aromatics, and English. You don’t want aromatics, they’re no good.” Then selecting a jar of Lane Ltd. Number 10 Downing Street without any input from me she asked, “How much do you want?”

After an embarrassed series of questions on cost and minimal amounts I left the shop with 2 ounces of my first non-Captain black tobacco and my life was for ever changed. Now I quickly learned that her definition of English was basically equivalent to non-aromatic, and went on to explore Virginias, Burleys, etc. But I faithfully avoided aromatics because “they’re no good.” Well there was one sad experience with a pouch of OTC apple tobacco that is too painful to recount. But otherwise I was faithful.

That began to change about 4 years ago. When the Christmas season comes round each year, I find myself pining for an aromatic experience. The thought of filling the room with a pleasant Christmassy aroma while I enjoy some spiced fruit cake like tobacco became an obsessive fantasy. The first year I gave into marketing and tried McCleland Christmas Spirit. It was slightly better than the above mentioned apple blend, and after about 3 bowls I gave the tin away. The next year was a Cornell and Diehl We Three Kings. The result was the same. I also tried Lane 1Q which is supposed to be the best selling bulk tobacco in the world. I believe that 1Q is actually some sort of elaborate practical joke that Lane is pulling. I just don’t understand how people can smoke this stuff!

The majority of aromatic tobaccos use synthetic flavorings. These, like many natural flavor components, are aromatic compounds that typically contain a hydrocarbon modified ester. For example, the vanilla flavor we know and love in our cakes and ice creams is produced by extracting aromatic components from vanilla beans. The primary component of this extract is vanillin, a phenolic aldehyde.

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Synthetic vanilla can be produced by the synthesis of the above compound, but because the natural vanilla extract has many other minor compounds in it, the flavor is not quite right. Various other chemicals have been developed in an attempt to more fully mimic the taste of natural vanilla. For example, acetanisol is a chemical originally extracted from a glandular secretion of beavers (I’m not making this up). Acetanisol is supposed to have a fruity buttery vanilla flavor that better captures the complexity of the natural product, and is used for a flavoring a variety of products including tobacco.

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Now here is the problem. Acetanisol, and other synthetic flavorings are not necessarily bad, but there are many people like myself that simply can not taste the intended flavor. I smell vanilla, but I taste bitter oily horribleness. I first noticed this problem with the advent of flavored coffee. I could not understand why people drank them. French vanilla, hazelnut, and Irish cream all taste the same to me, and don’t get me started on the annual arrival of “Everything Tastes Like Pumpkin” season. It’s all bitter oily horribleness. And I am able to detect the tiniest amount of these chemicals. I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I have thrown away because the store used the same grinder or carafe to make flavored and unflavored blends.

So I was doomed to never enjoy a nice bowl of holiday aromatic tobacco. I am biologically incapable of tasting what everyone else tastes. And yes, I did say I started with Captain Black. But I did not then know what tobacco was supposed to taste like and I guess I just assumed that you had to take the bad along with the good. I revisited Captain Black a few years ago and found it to be vile. I believe that my problem is not that uncommon as every time I talk about it folks step forward to say that they have the same problem. Sometimes they say that they think it is the humectant propylene glycol that they are tasting, but I don’t agree. I smoke tubs of Carter Hall that certainly have more than a healthy dose of propylene glycol and have never noticed the taste.

So I like to think that the gruff cob smoking lady of Pittsburgh shared my affliction and was not simply being closed minded. But even so, was she right? Are aromatics “no good” for those of us with a taste handicap? Well….no. As part of my stubborn quest for a holiday aromatic I stumbled across Germain’s Plum Cake Mixture and my eyes were opened!

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There are good and bad (in my opinon) aromatics! And a it seems that many European aromatics are made with more natural flavorings. Actual spices and fruit peel and juice added to the tobacco to create the flavor. Plum Cake Mixture tastes of orange and honey and spice and wine and…it is wonderful. In the years since I have found a few others that have made it into my holiday rotation, and even as an occasional non-holiday treat.

Cornell and Diehl Autumn Evening was another eye opener. This one is harder to explain. I taste butter and maple and according to my wife it fills the room with the smell of pancakes. I doubt that it is all natural flavoring as C&D claim it to include fruit, citrus, maple, rum, sugar, and whiskey. They use a special steam process that supposedly infuses the flavorings into the leaf as opposed to the usual “topping” method. I can’t explain why I find this tolerable, but it is a very nice treat and I probably go through a tin every year often smoking it early Saturday mornings with coffee.

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The ArtfulCodger, a dear friend of mine from YouTube, introduced me to Sutliff Black Spice as a alternate holiday blend. This one does not get a lot of love from the online pipe community, and I’m not sure why. It is a delightful smoke with a rich vanilla cinnamon nutmeg flavor that is just wonderful. As with Autumn Evening, I don’t know why this one gets past my broken pallet, but I thoroughly enjoy it and have added it to my holiday rotation.

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And now we come to my current smoke, Peter Stokkebye Cherry #3. Of all the vile aromatics, cherry always ranks vilest. What was I thinking?? Iron Rails And Pipe Dreams, another friend of mine from YouTube has a pallet that often agrees with my own. We seem to like similar non-aromatics, and an occasional cigar. But he also smokes aromatics. Now I always just dismissed this as he does not suffer from my taste affliction. But then one day he presented his impressions of PS Cherry #3 and gave it a glowing review. I was confused. Peach cobbler, Christmas cookie, even Lane 1Q I can accept, but no one should like cherry tobacco. I said as much in a comment and Andy encouraged me to try it. A few weeks later I need to spend a bit more to make the free shipping cutoff on a tobacco order and wound up owning 2 oz of PS Cherry #3.

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I fully expected bitter oily horribleness. What I got, to my surprise, was cherry. Not cough syrup, but cherry. Perhaps leaning a bit towards cherry cordials with some minor chocolate notes. I smoked a bowl, then another, then the sample was gone and I ordered another 4 ounces. It’s an occasional treat and I doubt I will need to by more for at least a year, but I want to have this tobacco available.

So I thought I had it all figured out. Only natural flavored aromatics were going to be tolerable. That certainly explained Plum Cake Mixture, and maybe it could be stretched to explain Autumn Evening. But no one is going to believe that Sutliff and Stokkebye are using real nutmeg and cherry juice. What started as a beautiful theory ends as a cautionary tale. There are some good aromatics, keep an open mind. Now I’m not going to become an aromatic smoker other than a bowl or two each month for a change of pace. But I have new respect for some aromatic blends. Of course, Lane 1Q is still awful.

Now where I did I put that Burley Flake #3…