Blog by Steve Laug
Many years ago, when I picked up the pipe again after leaving it aside for a time, I purchased a Medico billiard. I remember that I bought it from a 7-Eleven Convenience Store on the morning my oldest daughter was born in 1982. To me it was a thing of beauty, long and slender and light weight. It had a shine and it felt smooth in the hand. It was made out of Brylon – a mixture of briar and resin and had a nylon/plastic stem. I had no idea of what Brylon meant and how it would smoke but I did not care. I was ecstatic over the birth of my daughter and wanted a pipe to celebrate the event. It smoked hot for the longest time but eventually built a cake that cooled things down a lot. It was the only pipe I had and I never even thought of rotating pipes. I smoked Borkum Riff Whiskey flavoured tobacco as well as Captain Black Blue. I used pipe cleaners because somewhere along the way I had learned that they were necessary but I never let the pipe rest before loading it again and smoking a few more bowls. The only time it rested was when I did! I still have that old pipe – 33 years later. I have restemmed it with a churchwarden stem and still smoke it on occasion. I can tell you when I changed my habits and bought more pipes and some better grade tobacco. I can’t tell you the date of that momentous event but I can tell you the story behind it. I visited a small tobacco shop near where I worked in Vista, California to pick up some more pipe cleaners and some tobacco. When I went into the shop there was an older gent was sitting behind the counter smoking an interesting pipe and the tobacco he was smoking smelled great. We got to talking and I showed him the pipe I had – the old Brylon. I have to give him credit because he did not laugh at or mock me. He just said that he thought I needed to think about picking up another pipe or two so that I could give this one a rest. He was very gentle with me, knowing full well just how green I was to pipe smoking. He asked me what kind of budget I had to work with and like all young fathers my response was a laugh and a question. “Budget?” I asked. He chuckled and did a midstream adjustment in his path to take me to the estate pipe rack.
From the many pipes on the rack he chose two pipes for me that he thought would work well for me. They would give me some variety as well as value for the money. They were very differnet from my Medico. The first was an Alpha Comfit in a modified Prince shape. It was smooth briar and dark and rich looking made in Israel. It had thick walls, a thin saddle stem (with a comfit dental bit) and was clean and ready to smoke. I immediately fell in love with the hand feel and the shape of this pipe. That was my second pipe. The Medico had a rack mate. At that point I had no inkling of the difference a briar pipe would make to smoking when compared with Brylon. It was all about how they looked – their shape and feel – to me. The old gent did not mock me but shook his head approvingly. He truly had my number. The second pipe he chose for me was a sandblast Ben Wade Preben Holm made freehand. It was a piece of art to my eyes – almost what I have come to know as a Dublin shape, but had no idea of that then. The body of the pipe was a beautiful sandblasted briar. Then end of the shank and the rim were what he described as plateaux but to me just looked rough and craggy. It was very light weight. The stem was thin as well. I held the pipe and knew that I had to have this one as well. It too felt amazing in the hand.
I told him I would take them both. Now, understand I had no idea what they cost or if I could afford them. I was in “love” with them and had to have them. He laughed when he saw the “teenage boy in love” look in my eyes. He gave me a price that fit well into what I could afford. I have no idea what I paid for those two pipes but looking back I know he gave me a very good deal. He led me over to the tobacco bar and handpicked two tobaccos for me – not packaged drugstore tobaccos but two of his own blends – I don’t remember the names and the shop is long gone now but I do remember that one was a Virginia and the other was an aromatic that he said smelled like plum pudding. He gave me 2 ounces of each blend to go with the pipes. He cleaned each pipe with a pipe cleaner and wiped them down with a cloth and put them in a pipe sock that he had for them – a no name felt sock. He put some pipe cleaners in the bag along with the tobacco and the pipes.
Then to my surprise he asked if I wanted to smoke one of them before I left the shop. He would guide me in the packing and lighting to make sure I had it right so I would get the most out of my `new` pipes. I remember choosing the Ben Wade and packing it up. He checked my load and then added a bit more. He had me feel the springiness and then showed me how to light it with a match. Then he relit his own pipe and we smoked a bowl together. I will never forget that old gent and the first two good pipes I purchased. The pipe smoked like a dream.
I put away the old Medico and smoked those two pipes for quite a few years. I frequented that shop for as long as I lived and worked in Vista. I went back to see if it was still there a few years ago but it was gone. However, it still lives in my memory. I still have those two pipes. I still smoke them, 33+ years later and I still relive the story with every good smoke that they deliver. The Ben Wade looks tiny now in comparison to the newer freehands that are on the market. The old Alpha has been restemmed by none other than Lee von Erck many years ago now. Both will continue with me through my life.
That was my introduction into estate pipes. Is it any wonder that I still have far more estate pipes than pipes I have purchased new? Somehow, that initial experience set the bar for me to be on the lookout for estate pipes and to add them to my collection. Today not only do they make up the majority of my collection but I have added to that the hobby of restoring and refurbishing estate pipes. I have been doing that for over 15 years now and love the feel of old briar and bringing it back to a life of usefulness. At this point in my life I don’t think my love of estate pipes will ever die. The hunt for them is a part of every holiday and trip that I take. Even my kids take part in the hunt now.
I read a post on one of the forums on this topic that included a quote from Kris Kristofferson that I remember hearing when I was growing up. It is an apropos way to end this blog. “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday.” The author talked about the nostalgia of old briar and what a great addition that is to the value of the pipe. To me though the thing that makes estate pipes even interesting to me are the stories that come attached to the old pipe. Sometimes you can ferret out the stories of the pipe other times you have to use your imagination and create a story that fits the pipe. But in either case the memories that come along with these old pipes (if you can find them) and the ones you add over the years give these estate pipes a patina of dignity that it will take many years for a new pipe to gain. Do you buy estate pipes? Why? What are your reasons for buying estate pipes? If you do not, what keeps you from these dignified old timers?