Archive for 3rd May 2008

Kirsten Pipe Review

storefrontAbout, say, 6 months ago, I bought a Kirsten pipe directly from their brick-and-mortar store in Seattle on Nickerson street. What’s cool about the Kirsten is that you can “build it yourself” using pipe components they provide. The pipe is very unique, using a radiator stem to dissipate heat, and any liquids generated from smoking are captured in the stem as well. This is usually the liquids created when the pipe tobacco is moist, and the moisture condenses as the tobacco burns. Nobody wants to say “drool,” but you get the idea. Think of the burble you may hear while smoking your regular pipe. If you’re familiar with brass instruments, like bugles, there’s a “spit valve” that can be used to drain the pipe and if you don’t have time to drain the pipe, the valve can be turned so no liquids get into and escape out of the bowl.

I went to the store instead of ordering online since it wasn’t that far from where we live, and there’s something viscerally satisfying handling a pipe instead of looking at it online. Especially when it’s a funky pipe like the Kirsten. The store was comfortably cozy and not brightly lit, but had a large window providing additional light. The majority of the store is actually made up of smoking accessories and other pipes, but the Kirsten pipes are in the front case.

basic Kirsten designThese are the four basic components of the pipes: the stem, the mouthpiece, the bowl, and the valve. The first three can be intermingled for the most part to create the pipe, but the valve depends on the style of the stem. There are also smaller parts that may eventually need replacing. This includes screws, adapters and “o” rings. Just guessing here, but I’m thinking that the “o” rings would wear out first. As it is, these rings should last a long time.

After playing with the parts for an hour while my wife rolled her eyes, I chose a quarter-bent stem with a large bulldog meerschaum. My thoughts were that this combination should make for an extremely cool smoke, and it does just that. However, on hindsight, because of the slightly different characteristics of Kirsten bowls, the bulldog meerschaum is starting to remind me of a toilet bowl. All it needs is a little water tank. It doesn’t occur to most people, but I think it’s kind of odd. According the Kirsten website, the meerschaum bowls are carved, not pressed.

It’s a great smoke, but the stem’s a little strange looking, like Falcon pipes.

Perhaps I’ve mentioned this, but I smoke hot. That’s why I wanted to try the Kirsten. Because I smoke hot, the smoke itself is cool because of the stem design and meerschaum bowl, but I gotta tell you, that stem gets hot! I end up gripping the mouthpiece, because it’s the only part of the pipe that stays at a comfortable temperature when I start puffing like a choo choo train.

mouthpieceThe mouthpiece is interesting. It serves a function beyond just drawing the smoke. It actually has a ramrod extension, and it’s to accommodate cleaning the stem. You want to drain the stem before you clean it. This gets a 10 on the gross factor. You pull out the stem, and tip the pipe forward, and way more goop comes out than you’d imagine. You look at it and think, “Holy crap! That’s what’s stuck in my regular pipes when I smoke!” To clean the stem, you disassemble the stem, leave the valve out, wad a tissue into the stem, and use the ramrod to push the tissue all the way through the stem. It’s like cleaning the barrel of a gun.

The mouthpiece presents a challenge to the normal pipe cleaner. The hole to the stem isn’t open like a normal pipe. The ramrod creates a slight obstruction at the tip. This makes the pipe cleaner get stuck at the bottom of the mouthpiece. In less rambling words, it’s hard to put a pipe cleaner through the entire mouthpiece. But it can be done. You put the pipe cleaner in until it stops. Then, carefully, you move about 1/8″ of an inch up the pipe cleaner and firmly push it in. You do this a couple of times, and eventually enough of the pipe cleaner sticks out of the bottom of the stem and you can just pull it through.

If you have nimble fingers, you can take the bowl off before you clean the stem. The bowl is just finger-tightened onto the stem. Putting a bowl on the stem proved challenging for the granddaughter of the man who started the company, but I was able to do it pretty easily. There are three holes you want to keep clear. One is on the valve, and assembled, sits in the stem, under the bowl. Then there’s the hole in the stem itself, and if you separate the bowl from the stem, there’s the hole in the bottom of the bowl.

As you might have figured out by now, cleaning a Kirsten pipe can be a little more complex than cleaning your average pipe. Still, if you’re not real picky, you can clean it quick. Pull out the valve and the mouthpiece, and run a tissue through it. Easy money. I just like taking all the parts off, and reassembling them. It makes me happy.

Oh, and this meerschaum bulldog bowl design does not like being lit with a lighter. This is a pipe that I can only light with matches. It won’t light easily any other way. Also, because I did end up buying about one of the most expensive of combinations of their pipes, they threw in a briar second for free.

cross sectionThe bowl designs are not your normal bowl shape. The interior of the Kirsten is conical. This conical design requires the bowls to be a non-standard shape. I’ve read of pipe-makers making regular bowls for the Kirsten, but it kind of defeats the purpose of owning the Kirsten. Anyway, because of this conical design, if you ever have to ream the thing out, you’ll need their custom reamer. Also, the bowls aren’t as deep because of this design, so they don’t smoke as long as my regular pipes.

All the hooha aside, here’s my key points. The pipe’s components can be mixed and matched. The stem works to cool the smoke and collect moisture normally caused by smoking moist tobacco. It’s kind of a pain in the ass to clean depending on how much effort you want to invest in it. The bowls interiors are conical and this makes the bowls shaped uniquely. The bulldog meerschaum looks like a toilet bowl, and requires matches to light. All that said, it’s still a cool, comfortable smoke and I like it.