Archive for 20th April 2009

The Cheap Pipe Experiment

Let me preface this by saying I’m a pipe smoker, not that I smoke pipes. At least that’s how I see it. A person who smokes a pipe may smoke once a month, once a week, maybe once a day. A pipe smoker almost always has a pipe dangling from his lips, and a surrounded by a sweet smelling cloud of tobacco for as much of the day as possible.

So I abuse my pipes. I smoke a single pipe all day, letting it cool off between smokes, and then rotating to another pipe the next day. I have 7 “live” pipes that I rotate through. I say “live” because I have a few pipes that are barely hanging together thrown into a desk drawer should there be some ungodly emergency, and all my other pipes mysteriously disappear. Hey, it could happen.

Anyway, like I said, I abuse pipes. I’m a chimney, I drop them; you know, everything they tell you not to do. But I do clean them inside and out, even reaming them and sweetening them when I need to.

Still, I punish my pipes, and they’re kind of expensive, between $50 and $80 on the average. I do have one horribly expensive pipe, a meerschaum skull, but I never smoke it. Considering the damage I wreak, I decided to muck about with cheap pipes, not estate pipes, just to see what happens under the kind of conditions I put one through.

090402 Cheap Pipe 01So, the pipe you see here ran me about $18. There are cheaper, but you don’t know what they’re made of (I’ve smoked a weird, plastic like pipe once that ran me about $5). This is the basic briar with a vulcanite stem. No maker’s mark, just a stamp saying it was made in Italy, so I call it my “frah-gee-lay” pipe (see A Christmas Story). You can click on these images to see a larger view.

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090411 Cheap Pipe 01Now, remember, I smoke a pipe all day, but only once a week. Let’s take a look at this pipe a week later. Here you’ll see that the finish has started bubbling, creating air pockets underneath. In one corner, the finish has already chipped off a small amount. You can also see that the stem has already discolored. Again, you can click on the images to see a larger view.

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091818 Cheap Pipe 01So again, I wait a week, and smoke the pipe all day. At this point, the damage is extremely visible. Every place the finish bubbled, has now chipped open from handling. Okay, I kind of chipped at the edges so they’d look smooth, but on the whole, the damage is just from handling.

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Again, the key here is that I didn’t expect it to handle the abuse well, and that wasn’t the point. I just wanted a cheap pipe, regardless of how bad it would eventually look. You can’t beat a new $18 pipe with a stick just because it looks ugly. As long as the briar and stem remain intact, I’m perfectly happy with it.

090412 Cheap Pipe 01I thought I’d share with you one more cheap pipe. This is a meerschaum-lined pipe I got off of eBay for something like $7.  My rotation on this pipe was a lot harder, and it payed the price. You can see the damage to the bowl. The edges of the meerschaum lining have broken off, I’ve managed to actually smoke the pipe hard enough to destroy the bottom of the meerschaum, and the bowl itself is cracked. This pipe lives in my “if-every-pipe-on-the-earth-disappeared” junk drawer, ’cause, you never know…

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So how have my more expensive pipes held up under the same brutal handling? Virtually no damage to the finishes, except where I’ve dropped them, and minor discoloration to the stems.

So here’s my point: I wouldn’t recommend smoking any really expensive pipes unless you’re a collector. I’ve seen $5,000 pipes that would never touch my lips. I’d never buy them, but I sure as heck wouldn’t do much more than dust them once in a while. The range of $50-$80 is reasonable as good pipes go, and will survive regular use very well. But still, a really cheap pipe still smokes well, despite how it ends up looking, and isn’t that the bottom line?

Of course, one week later, I ended up buying another $80 pipe. Hey, it was my birthday!