I have had the privilege of having access to the best of the high grade pipes that have been coming out of Italy in recent years, made by some of the world's most talented pipe makers. I have seen thousands upon thousands of such pipes over and over again and normally in a matter of a few days. Now that I'm in the business, such occasions are a lot more frequent. I no longer have to examine pipes in order to add a few new pieces to my private collection. I now do it from a professional point of view and in order to eventually offer pipes that are as flawless as hand made pipes can be.
Those who know me (and have seen me in action!) marvel at the number and variety of little "tools" I always carry with me and that help me examine a pipe as thoroughly as I can. These tools include (1) A penlight, (2) A 3.5mm drill bit, (3) An old gadget made of a bent wire that is ideal to run through the shank of a bent pipe, (4) A long "scoop" that is also 3.5mm in diameter, (5) A magnifying glass, (6) Pipe cleaners of different types, lengths, degrees of flexibility, materials and diameters, and (7) A high precision "plastic" caliber (make sure you don't use a metal caliber on other people's pipes!). (See the photo below for an illustration of some of these tools.)
Some of the tools I use (click to enlarge)
My Italian pipe making friends seem to fear the moment I pull my penlight out on them! Early on in my life as a pipe smoker, I realized that a thin light would reveal the inside of a pipe in a way that nothing else would. It does take time to see the potential uses of the light, but I guarantee you a very pleasant surprise. Your life will never be the same again once you get to know how to use and apply this magical thin light.
The purpose of this article is to share with you the general criteria that can be applied when examining and evaluating a "high grade briar" pipe. I think the best approach here is to divide these criteria according to what is objective, and hence recommended, and what is personal taste, subjective. As you will see, the dividing line between what is objective and what is subjective is usually blurred. Pipe smokers don't have to worry about this, while people in the business should not only be able to distinguish the two but also select their pipes accordingly. I've also chosen to limit the issue to high grade pipes, since including other pipes would render my points irrelevant at times and unfair in some cases, also I might outstay my welcome!
First, what is a high grade pipe? I base this definition on several factors, primarily four: (1) Hand Made, (2) Exhibiting skilled craftsmanship, (3) Made of the best of materials (briar and mouthpiece materials), and (4) Exhibiting good taste and elegant design. I'm sure this would exclude some brands that are considered by many to be high grade pipes. Also, the price is often used as a criterion; however, I find this to be too unstable and too elusive to be a valid base of judgement.
Grain: The grain should be uniform, with no bald spots or "knots".
Weight: Light weight is generally associated with well seasoned and cured briar. The lighter, the better, in relation to the overall size of the bowl and the thickness of the walls.
Sandpits: There is nothing wrong with sandpits; however, the fewer and smaller they are, the better, though it doesn't determine the quality of the smoke. (I know it can be listed under subjective criteria, but we're talking high grade pipes here!)
Fillings: Totally unacceptable, in my opinion, and it's a good enough reason to reject the pipe.
A high grade pipe should not show any of the following:
File or sandpaper marks
Sand dust in the bowl, mouthpiece or shank
Irregular, sloppy staining or waxing
Unclear and messy nomenclature
Overall: The mouthpiece should at least "look" potentially comfortable, based on your experience. It shouldn't be too thick, too wide or with a lip that is too high as to hit the top of your palate, nor too flat to render the pipe difficult to hold a good grip on. All this can apparently vary from one person to another, but I decided to include it here due to its importance. A well made, sweet smoking pipe may sometimes be abandoned only because the mouthpiece is uncomfortable.
Finishing: Like the rest of the pipe, there should be no file marks, wax remains, wood dust, etc.
Air hole Cleanness: The air hole should be clean and clear. You can check this, e.g., by: (1) Running a white, thick cleaner through it, and/or (2) Running a thin light from one end and looking into the hole from the other end.
Air hole diameter & position: The diameter should be identical to that of the draught hole in the shank; the slightest variation can result in a problem, such as excess moisture. The air hole should also be central, not leaning towards one side of the mouthpiece.
Diameter: While this depends on the brand the size of the bowl and the pipe in general, the ideal diameter is generally believed to be 3.5mm to 4.0mm. I personally prefer 3.5, which allows a smooth flow of air without causing fine-cut tobacco to travel along with the air! (For your information, regarding Italian brands, Don Carlos pipes, e.g., are made with mainly a 3.5mm draught hole diameter, while Cavicchi pipes are consistently made with a 4mm diameter, and Viprati pipes come in a wide variety of diameters, depending on the size of the pipe. All these are highly popular pipes, and deservedly so. Also, Ashton uses a 3.5mm drill.)
Position: This is definitely one of the most crucial facets of the evaluation of a pipe.
It should be as central as possible.
It should be perfectly aligned with the air hole (in the mouthpiece).
The end of it should enter the tobacco chamber as low as possible, preferably right flat on the chamber base.
It should ideally be of the same diameter of the draught hole and the air hole, a bit bigger is better than a bit tighter.
I find that a penlight is the best and most reliable way to inspect this delicate part of the pipe.
Tobacco Chamber State:
This can be either in its natural virgin state, pre-carbonized, stained, varnished, or with an insert, such as meerschaum. As I'm talking about high grade pipes, I can state the following with confidence!!
Natural State: I consider this to be the only acceptable option for a high grade, except maybe quality inserts that serve a purpose(!!). A natural finish chamber can be either left a bit rough, to allow an easier breaking-in of the pipe, silk smooth, or somewhere in between. All are acceptable, and the ultimate choice is that of the maker and then the smoker. Some makers also have their own magic blends of eg., honey and tobacco dust, honey & an alcoholic drink, etc., though I would prefer the maker to leave that up to me!
Pre-carbonized: This is the first of an unacceptable feature of a pipe, though many experienced smokers would disagree. Having said that, and if I really liked a pipe with a pre-carbonized tobacco chamber, I would buy it anyway as long as the pre-carb substance is as thin as possible, uniform and 100% natural. Water glass is a material substance that I have found less intrusive and most efficient. I repeat: This is a compromise I would make only if I'm in love with the pipe. (I believe that a high grade pipe is not made or intended for a novice smoker who is out to get the first or second pipe and hence is likely to abuse it and ultimately burn it. Based on this assumption, I find it ridiculous that a pipe maker would pre-carbonize an otherwise flawless tobacco chamber to protect the likely buyer, i.e., an experienced smoker. "Experienced" and "burn-outs" should not occur in the same context, as long as the pipe is of quality, is well made, and the briar is reasonably thick and well cured. If this reasoning holds, then the only other reason why a flawless tobacco chamber should be pre-carbonized is that there are sandpits and other defects that the maker wishes to hide.
We pipe smokers are fond of the raw material, and we should admire it and enjoy it with its advantages as well as its drawbacks. I don't like anything to stand between the two materials I most cherish Tobacco and briar.
Stained: Some makers decide to stain the tobacco chamber the same color as the pipe, which is not only ridiculous but goes against the standards of a reputable pipe maker. Such pipes are to be avoided at all costs. I know you will eventually cover it up with tobacco, but are you really willing to spend money and go through the agony of sour and bitter (as well as potentially unhealthy) taste till the cake is formed? I am not.
Varnished: I'm yet to see a high grade pipe with a varnished tobacco chamber, but you never know. Not only should such pipes not be produced and should be avoided, they should be used as fire wood (though I expect it to stink when burning).
Bowl Inserts: The most common material used is pressed meerschaum. While there is nothing wrong with it, I don't see the purpose! If I want to smoke a meerschaum, I buy a meerschaum; if I want a briar, I buy a briar. (Note that I'm probably a purist!)
Fit between Shank and Mouthpiece:
The fit should not be too tight nor too loose. You should be able to remove the mouthpiece by rotating it (in one direction) and putting it back without forcing it (always the same direction). If you hear a squeaking noise, then it is too tight; if you can remove the mouthpiece by just pulling it out, then it's too loose. This is a very rough guideline, though, and a little experience will go a long way. Both problems can be easily fixed within seconds, but you're not paying money to fix a pipe. If you really like the pipe, you might ask the tobacconist to fix it for you, in which case I think a discount is in order! (I don't want to get into how to loosen or tighten a tenon here; I'm sure most pipe smokers know how to do it, at least loosening the tenon with graphite.)
Pipe finishes are numerous and are always on the increase; they are mainly: Smooth natural, stained (brown, red, orange, black, etc.), andblasted, rusticated, carved, varnished, coated with another material on the outside (like the ones with the bowl coated with a layer of cork, made by Spanu), painted (all sort of colors and patterns, such as the new generation the "Rhapsody Series" from Butz Choquin that come with a matching tie), and varied combinations. (Note that, to me, "rusticated" means… "rusticated", while "carved" means a pipe carved into the shape of something, such as a human face, etc. In the USA, and elsewhere, the two words seem to be used to refer to the same finish, i.e., "rusticated"!)
What finish the pipe is in is your own decision, of course. You will need to evaluate the quality of the finish you're after, and it's pure taste. Of course, no one would want a sandblasted pipe with chunks of wood taken off by the carelessly operated sand jet! The quality of the finish will be evaluated by the potential owner of the pipe in accordance with his/her own standards and taste.
This is a complicated issue, especially considering how confused, and confusing, our world is when it comes to pipe shapes. However, if you're after a classic Billiard, then the pipe should be perceived by YOU as a classic Billiard, and so on; just make sure you understand classic shapes if you're after one. If you're not after a classic shape, then you're most probably after a freehand. In between, we have what I like to call "freeforms", which means a classic shape, rendered less classic by a modification effected by the maker, with or without a purpose. In the case of a freehand or a freeform, you cannot like or not like a pipe until you've seen it and stared at it for a good while. On the other hand, when what you want is a classic shape, then you look around till you find it. Neither approach is ever straightforward. (Mind you, some freehands have acquired their own names, and some smokers would be looking for that shape, usually produced by one maker.)
This may be: Straight Grain, Bird's Eye, Ring Grain, Cross Grain, Random Grain, whatever you want to call it. The important thing here is to look for a uniform grain pattern, with no bald spots (we're always talking about high grades!).
It's extremely important to hold the pipe in your hand and feel it. The shape should not be admired and evaluated only through the eyes; the hands are equally important, especially if you like to hold the pipe while smoking it.
The Internet has not changed that, and should never change it. I would buy a pipe online only if I'm given a full money-back guarantee, with no questions asked. Once you've received the pipe, and if it doesn't feel right in your hand, that is a good reason to send it back, in my opinion. This rule should be followed also in all other aspects of a pipe, be objective or subjective.
This has to do with both your eyes as well as you hands. You need to consider the size of the bowl in relation to the size and length of the mouthpiece, the shape of the bowl and how the shank joins the bowl, etc. All these are pretty personal, and there are no rules. What is fundamental is that you see and feel that the pipe does have balance.
I know you can not put the pipe in your mouth until after you've bought it. Nevertheless, you can predict that fairly easily if you have a few pipes in you collection and a bit of experience. The mouthpiece is crucial here: Make sure it is bent at the right angle, if it is bent, that it is not too thick, that the bit is not too high or wide, that the lip is not too obtrusive or flat, etc. You know your teeth better than anyone else!
You should also know under what circumstances you intend to smoke the pipe in, primarily. Are you going to smoke it mainly when you're reading, working on your car, typing, sitting and watching TV, etc.?
Weight is not to be overlooked here. You should consider it in relation to the overall size of the pipe and mainly the bowl.
Size & Weight:
Again this has to do with:
The type of tobacco you smoke, or intend to smoke in that pipe. Pressed tobaccos last longer than mixtures, and you might not ever have enough time to smoke a Magnum size pipe if you prefer Virginia flakes. It would take HOURS to smoke your way through a bowlful.
The bigger, the heavier. So if you have weak teeth, you might want to refrain from buying big, and possibly heavy, pipes. There are always the rare exception: A pipe that is large and yet light in weight.
The finish: Rusticated, carved and sandblasted pipes are normally lighter in weight than smooth ones, due to some of the wood having been removed.
This is one of the most personal criteria. I would say buy the best you can afford (per one purchase), while trying to get the biggest value for what you can afford paying. I don't believe in a cheap pipe or an expensive pipe. Pipes are either good smokers or poor smokers, beautiful or ugly, unique or mediocre. A cheap pipe is as likely to become a favorite as much as an extremely expensive pipe is likely to be abandoned after a few smokes.
I would not buy a high grade pipe if it does not come with a guarantee against manufacturing and material problems. The norm is a one-year guarantee. Ask your tobacconist when you're buying a pipe and make sure you have the manufacturer's guarantee, with the shop's stamp. This is not only valid in case only when you don't trust your tobacconist; remember, no one is immortal, unless your tobacconist's name is Christopher Lambert!
Type of Briar?!
I left this till the end since I think it can be, or even is already, a very controversial issue. Some people would claim to be able to recognize the type of briar used when they examine the pipe or when they smoke it, i.e., whether it is Calabrian, Tuscan, Ligurian, Algerian, Corsican, etc. To be honest, I don't think this is possible at all, and, hence, I can not propose this element as an evaluation criterion. I do know that it is hard, if at all possible, to recognize the type of briar even when looking at the cut ebouchon, before making the pipe, let alone when a pipe has been made out of it. Not even pipe makers, and briar hervesters and cutters, can claim such an ability.
Having said that, if a maker "claims" to be using exclusively Corsican briar, e.g., and you find that you like the way it smokes, then you might as well seek only Corsican briar, or at least have a particular preference for it. Beyond that, I see no point to make.
Machine made pipes
These are generally less likely to present an off-center air hole or any of the other technical problems; after all, they are made by machines. However, they could be, and usually are, made of cheap wood and could show poor finishing, fillings of all sizes, uncomfortable mouthpieces, etc. The guidelines above could be applied, after quite a bit of tuning down. The price is detrimental in evaluating a pipe, and it is up to each individual to see how many of the above evaluation criteria should be applied and to what extent.
Final Thought: The Pipe Cleaner Test
A lot of pipe smokers who have a lot of experience and whom I respect so much swear by this test. While I don't deny its validity, I recommend a bit of caution in its application. From my own personal observation, I have found extremely well made pipes that would not accept a cleaner without removing the mouthpiece; on the other hand, I have seen pipes that accept a cleaner effortlessly and yet have serious technical flaws. After all, how many of the highly popular bent, Petersons with the famous system would accept a cleaner? I have only one such Peterson (Sherlock Holmes Original), so I'm not an expert here. Should we reject bent pipes, even those with a moisture deposit like Petersons, just because we can not get a cleaner through them? I don't smoke bent pipes, so I can not provide even a subjective answer; I would say no anyway, but for different reasons.
I use the above-mentioned penlight to inspect the inside part of a pipe. I personally believe that this is the most reliable approach. I have found misalignment between air hole and draught hole (mouthpiece and shank) through the use of a light; in these cases, a cleaner always went through without problems.
I'm not saying we should abandon the use of a cleaner as part of our evaluation of a pipe. All I'm recommending is to apply it wisely, by not relying on it exclusively or by discrediting well made bent pipes because of their failure to accept a cleaner. Naturally, a straight, quarter bent and half bent pipes should ALWAYS accept a cleaner; just make sure there is no metal tube inside!!