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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

AutumnEvening

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…

What is a Pipe Part 5a: Stummel Materials

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We call the bowl and shank of a pipe the stummel. Stummel is a word borrowed from the German language meaning stump, stub, or butt. I am not sure why this word became associated with pipes, but can guess that it might have something to do with the source of briar, the most common stummel material. But briar was not always the material of choice for pipe makers.

As we saw in part one of this series, the first pipes where simply holes in the ground for burning tobacco. As the pipe evolved into a hand held object, a variety of materials were used including hardwoods, stone, porcelain and clay. Clay held prominence for a long period beginning with the introduction of tobacco to England in the 16th century. It was an abundant resource, relatively easy to shape into pipes, fireproof, and provided a pleasant smoking experience. However clay was not without issues. Clay is a poor insulator, so clay pipes get very hot when smoked. And it is fragile and difficult to keep clean. One humorous suggestion was that the best way to clean a clay pipe was to throw it into the fireplace.

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Meerschaum was first used for pipe stummels in the mid 18th century and quickly supplanted clay among those that could afford the higher price. Meerschaum was, and still is, prized for it’s ability to provide a cool and dry smoke. It is a relatively soft material that can be carved into a variety of shapes and with intricate patterns, even whole scenes appearing on pipes that seem more art than smoking tool. Aficionados of meerschaum believe that it is the perfect stummel material. Personally I have never enjoyed a meerschaum pipe more than a briar, but I do appreciate their beauty.

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There are a variety of other materials that have been used for pipe stummels for better or worse ranging from hardwoods (cherry, pear, etc), to pyrolytic graphite (Venturi), to corn cobs. While these materials all have some interesting characteristics, they offer little advantage over clay or meerschaum, and all are a distant second to the most popular stummel material in history, briar.

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Legend has it that the first briar pipe was made in 1854 in St Claude, France. Given what you are about to learn about briar, you will see that it is a miracle that someone just happened to try it as a pipe material. Briar wood comes from the tree heath Erica Arborea (shown above) which grows throughout the Mediterranean, Africa, and parts of Australia. But the growing conditions are very important and only a few Mediterranean regions produce briar of a suitable quality for pipe making. Pipe making briar grows wild in rocky mountainous regions. The plant is well suited to these conditions as it is tough and has adapted to survive. As you can see in the image below, the plant has an interesting system of roots that extend from a large, subterranean burl (also termed ball, or tumor). The roots can extend broadly in the rocky soil collecting scarce moisture and nutrients. These are then transported to the burl for storage. The part of the plant that we see above ground extends from the top of the burl. I wonder if the burl being the “butt” or “stump” of the plant is what led to the word “stummel” being used for the bowl and shank of the pipe.

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The reason no one farms briar is that it takes between 30 and 50 years for the burl to reach maturity. And even if you had the patience to wait that long before your first harvest, there is no guarantee that a farm could replicate the harsh growing conditions needed to produce quality briar burls. So the burls are dug in the wild, one at a time, by hand. They are then gathered and transported back to the sawmill where the processing begins.

The first step at the sawmill involves wetting the burls to keep them from cracking, and placing them in a dark place for several months until the plant basically expires. The burl will continue to send out shoots for quite a while in an attempt to re-grow the rest of the plant. After a few months, the briar is sawed into blocks. This is a process that takes great skill on the part of the cutter. They must read the grain, maximize yield, and keep all of their fingers. If you think I am kidding about the last point be sure to watch the video below where Mimmo Romeo, one of the top briar suppliers today, demonstrates his briar cutting skill.

There is still some work to do. Once the blocks are cut and graded, they are placed in cloth sacks and boiled. This step is designed to remove impurities that would lead to an off taste when the pipe is smoked. After boiling, the blocks are allowed to dry for a minimum of 18 months before being sent to pipemakers. And many pipe makers will continue to dry/age the briar for years before using it.

So the idea that a carver in 1850’s France just happened to pick up a block of briar and make a pipe strikes me as miraculous occurrence. It almost seems that briar was fated to be the material of choice for stummels. And we are very fortunate to have it because it does have several unique characteristics that make it ideal for pipes. We will delve into some of those characteristics and dispel a few myths in the next installment.

Tobacco Aging and Melding

HeaderAs I write this I am smoking a bowl of Petter Stokkeby Luxury Bullseye Flake (LBF) in a large Hercules billiard. I like LBF as a change of pace from my usually burley-laden rotation and often find myself smoking it in the spring. It has just enough perique, and the black cavendish smooths the VaPer into a delightful sweet and sour treat. I keep a fair amount of this blend cellared, and the jar I am now smoking was purchased in May of 2015. Not terribly long ago, but seemingly enough to make a difference.

I recently purchased a few ounces of LBF to replace this jar in my cellar and sampled a bowl straight from the vendor. It was good, but not as good as this ~3 year old tobacco. The perique was bit sharper, and the Virgina was more tangy and bright. It was far from bad, but just did not give me the same level of enjoyment. So what happened in those 3 years?

Hourgalss

Tobacco aging is a complex topic and one that folks seem to love to argue over. You can find experts suggesting that burley does not benefit from aging, and others that say it does. Some say that aging ruins Latakia, others say that it mellows wonderfully. Even the mechanics of cellaring are debated with some saying that it is necessary to leave ample space in your jar to allow for the magic aging process to occur, while others will tell you that vacuum sealing is the best way to age tobacco. No one seems to agree on anything!

Not a lot of science has been done around the topic of tobacco aging. One are that has recently been debunked is the concept of “bloom” or “plume” or “crystals.” Folks will open old tins or jars of tobacco and proudly show off the “sugar crystals” that have formed from the aging process. Cigar smokers are equally proud of the small white marks that develop on their smokes. Well, if you are one of the folks that proudly smoke your sugar coated aged tobacco I have bad news for you; that ain’t sugar!

mold

Some guys over at Friends of Habanos decided to put the whole cigar plume thing to the test. They collect samples of cigars with plume and submitted them to a lab for analysis. In every case, the samples were identified as fungal in nature. They extended their study to include some aged pipe tobaccos that exhibited crystals, and once again every sample was either mold, or in a few cases bacteria. You can read about the study and reactions here.  Be sure to go to page 6 where the pipe tobacco study is described.

Now before you panic and empty you humidors and toss your pipe tobacco, keep in mind that people have been smoking this stuff for a long time with no apparent ill effects. It is unlikely that anything even remotely biohazardous could survive the heat of combustion. But at the same time, you need to realize that the crystals and spots are not signs of quality aged tobacco. So what does the aging process do to improve the smoke?

One possibility is fermentation of sugars. This is what provides a faint vinegar scent to some aged tobaccos. I say faint because the chemistry/biology involves the fermentation of sugar into alcohol by yeast, and then a secondary bacterial fermentation in which the alcohol is converted to acetic acid (aka vinegar). To get the vinegar doused McClelland experience without adding vinegar to the tobacco would require a rather high alcohol and bacterial content. Sugar will burn hot and produce some sharpness in the smoke, so fermentation may help to mellow the qualities of the tobacco. But this is unlikely to be the primary aging process. Also note that our friends mold (yeast) and bacteria play a central role in the process.

The other thing that definitely occurs with all blends is a melding of flavors. This poorly defined process involves the equilibration of the mixture, and possibly the transfer of some volatile flavoring components from one leaf to another. I can’t give a chemical formula for it, but I believe that most pipe smokers have experienced it happening. One of my favorite bulk C&D blends, Old Joe Krantz, often arrives in what I consider to be an unsmokable form. It is harsh and overwhelming. But after just a few weeks in a jar it becomes a wonderful smoking blend. I believe the same is true for the LBF. It just takes a bit of time for the flavors to settle and for them to begin to work together.

So give your tobacco some time to meld and see if you notice a difference. And the next time you try a new blend and find it harsh, jar it up for a few weeks and revisit it. You just might find a new favorite.