Blog by Joe Gibson
(© J. Gibson Creative, April 19, 2018)
The topic keeps resurfacing on pipe smoking forums. Do the higher priced, premium pipes really smoke better than less expensive pipes?
There are some pipe smoking snobs who claim the more expensive pipes do smoke better. But how does that explain the thousands of pipe smokers who collect and swear by the smoking qualities of Kaywoodies and Dr. Grabow’s for example?
My test pipes:
I decided to test some of my pipes to see if I found a difference. My one Dunhill is a 3/4 bent billiard made in 1926, so I chose bent pipes for this test. I smoked the following for the test: Dunhill 151 Inner Tube, Rinaldo Triade YYY 1, Stefano Santambrogio (not a full 3/4 bend, but close), Stanwell Hans Christian Anderson Smooth Dublin, a Savinelli Dry System 2622, an Italian briar with the only stamping being Christmas 1988 and a Borkum Riff pipe.
The tobacco for the test? Dunhill My Mixture 965 so there was no variance because of the tobacco blend. I measured out 2 grams for each bowl, straight from the tin without any additional drying time. I packed and smoked each bowl using the same technique.
Four of the pipes were new when I received them (One purchased, two contest prizes, one included in an on-line tobacco purchase deal). Two pipes I rescued and the last was a gift to me. All seven are in good smoking condition.
Part of the premise that more expensive pipes smoke better, is that the engineering and quality of workmanship makes a difference. I settled for examining the drilling of each pipe and stem as a comparison in engineering. A perfectly drilled pipe should smoke better than a poorly drilled pipe, in my opinion. To check this, I performed a “pass a pipe cleaner” test on each pipe. By “pass a pipe cleaner,” I mean I can insert a Dill’s pipe cleaner through the bit and it goes all the way into the bowl.
What makes a perfectly drilled pipe:
In my opinion, a perfectly drilled pipe has three things: 1. Draught hole dead center in the mortise, 2. Hole and airway in the stem perfectly aligned (will pass a pipe cleaner), and, 3. Draught hole and airway the same diameter.
If the draught hole is not perfectly centered in the mortise, then the airway in the stem will not line up properly. It won’t necessarily prevent the pipe from being a decent smoker, but it won’t be a great pipe until you get it re-drilled. If the airway in the stem is larger than the draught hole, you may hit briar when inserting the pipe cleaner and must wiggle the cleaner to get it into the draft hole of the bowl. Conversely, if the draught hole is bigger than the airway, it should pass the pipe cleaner more easily.
When setting up for my test, I shined a bright LED light into the mortise of each pipe I used. Surprisingly, none of my pipes were what I would call perfectly drilled. The drilling on my Savinelli Dry System 2622 looks more like the drilling on a Cavalier. For example, the draught hole is drilled into the top of the airway and there is a space at the bottom of the mortise where moisture can collect. This is part of the engineering design of a Dry System pipe. It’s a very good smoker and I’ve never notice it gurgle.
On the other hand, the Borkum Riff bent pipe is just badly drilled. A cleaner inserted into the mortise bottoms out in briar. Shine a light in the mortise and you don’t see the draught hole. Run the cleaner along the top of the mortise and it does slide into the draught hole. Of all the bent pipes I tested, this was the worst in my opinion.
My unscientific method of measuring the size of the airway and draught hole was equally as simple. A single pipe cleaner fits into the draught hole and the stem airway. Five of the pipes did this. The Savinelli and the Dunhill have larger bores. The Savinelli is a balsa filter pipe and the Dunhill originally came with an aluminum inner tube (hence the name, Inner Tube). I don’t use either. I can easily insert 2 pipe cleaners at one time in both pipes.
The pipe test:
For the testing I loaded two grams of Dunhill My Mixture 965 in each pipe. I weighed the tobacco on my kitchen scale.
Passes a pipe cleaner with some wiggling. Draft hole off center high. Avg. size airway in stem.
Good, easy draught – like sipping a fountain drink through a plastic straw. Bowl was warm but comfortable to hold. Session lasted 55 minutes with no relights. Ash and minimal tobacco bits left at the end of smoke. Good flavor from the tobacco throughout the smoke. (Acquired as a prize give-away from This Pipe Life pipe forum. MSRP listed as $250. The pipe came with both a regular stem and a churchwarden stem.)
Christmas 1988 pipe:
Does not pass a pipe cleaner. Draft hole drilled high and the airway in the stem seems smaller than Stanwell.
Decent draught, open and unrestricted (probably because of gap between the tenon and bottom of mortise. The bowl got warm but not hot. Session lasted just over 50 minutes with some dottle in the bottom. Relit once around the 41-minute mark. Good flavor from the tobacco throughout the smoke. (Used pipe found at antique/collectible shop for $15. Probably sold by Tinderbox originally)
Doesn’t pass a pipe cleaner. Even with the draught hole drilled high of center it’s very good smoker.
I have won two long smoke competitions with this pipe. My record is 1 hr. 27 minutes with this pipe. The bowl got warm but still comfortable to hold. Session lasted 67 minutes with no relights. Good flavor to the end with a minimal amount of dottle remaining. (Bought new, unsmoked off eBay for $80.)
Borkum Riff Bent
– Does not pass a pipe cleaner. Draught hole drilled into the top of the airway. Gurgles. Smoked the worst of the pipes tested. To my eye, the airway seems smaller than the rest and the draught feels more restricted, like sipping a drink through a cocktail straw. Bowl gets hot while smoking. Session lasted 43 minutes and required 3 relights. Approximately 1/8th of a bowl left at the end. Flavor didn’t seem as developed in the other pipes. (Acquired new as part of a package special from an only retailer) I find myself wondering why I still have this pipe.
Savinelli Dry System 2622
Smoked without the Savinelli Balsa Filter. Draught hole drilled into the top of the airway, probably by design.
Because of the design, the airways in the stem and the mortise are large enough to fit two pipe cleaners at the same time. However, the pipe cleaner does not go through the bit because it is a P-lip design. As I smoke it with no filter, the draught is wide open (like using a jumbo drink straw). The session lasted 49 minutes with only ash left. It seemed to produce more smoke than the rest. The bowl got warm but doesn’t get hot. From a flavor standpoint, the tobacco started tasting “ashy” just before it went out. (Used pipe found at an antique/collectible store. Paid about $20 for it.)
Dunhill “Inner Tube” 151”
Produced in 1926 according to the markings, this pipe originally came with an aluminum “Inner Tube.” Mine doesn’t have the tube. The airways and draught hole are big enough to fit 3 pipe cleaners into them at one time. It passes a single pipe cleaner from the lip or button into the bowl with no effort.
With the openness of the airway and draught hole the draught was like drinking through a jumbo size straw. I expected this pipe to smoke faster, but I found myself smoking slower. Flavor was good, tobacco burned evenly and required less tamping than I expected. Bowl gets warm but not as warm as some of the other pipes. Session lasted 71 minutes with no relights and just ashes left. Unlike the Savinelli Dry System, I did not get the ashy taste at the end though. (Used. A gift from a friend after he learned I didn’t have a Dunhill.)
Rinaldo Triade YYY 1
Easily passes a pipe cleaner. Instead of a perfect circle, the draught hole is elongated and reaches from the top of the mortise to the bottom.
Good, even draw like a plastic fountain straw. Bowl gets warm but not as warm as some of the other pipes. Session lasted 59 minutes without a relight. Very minimal dottle at the bottom of the bowl and good flavor throughout. (New. Won in a long smoke competition.)
Linkman Hollycourt Special 7023 (Bonus addition)
Produced between 1938 – 1943. Threaded stinger but looks like the end of the tip of the stinger cut off. Easily passes a pipe cleaner to bowl.
After the Dunhill, this is the oldest pipe I own, so I decided to include it in the test. The bowl gets hotter at the bottom than I expected but it can still be held. Bowl is deep, and 2 grams only fills about half of it. Very open draught. Tobacco burns evenly and I noticed more flavor at the start. Where the tobacco was medium strength in previous test, it was stronger at the end of this bowl. Session lasted 50 minutes. (Used. Acquired at antique/collectible shop for $25.)
After conducting my smoking test and talking to several expert pipe carvers and restorers, I decided the answer is so subjective for a yes or no answer. What makes a pipe a quality smoker depends on the definition of a quality smoker by each pipe smoker. I have several hypotheses and a theory.
First the theory.
The reason more expensive pipes are considered to be better smokers is because more time, money and effort go into producing the pipe and the quality control is better. In other words, high-end manufacturers usually have strict quality control guidelines. If at the end of the manufacturing process, the pipe doesn’t meet those guidelines, it is either destroyed or sold as a second or basket pipe. This doesn’t mean that every high-end pipe is perfect but the chance of it being a bad smoker is less.
This also apply to Artisan pipes carved by people like Mark Tinsky, Walt Cannoy, Ryan Alden, Rad Davis, et al. Artisan pipes are more likely to be great smokers because they are going to make sure it is a perfect pipe before selling. If for some reason, the pipe has problems, they tend to stand behind their work and fix it.
Now for the hypothesis.
After the engineering, the most important part is the quality of the briar itself. I believe artisans and companies always buy the best briar blocks that they can afford. They don’t call up a dealer and send me 1,000 lbs. of whatever is on the shelf. They ask about the aging, curing and grading.
After harvesting, cutting, boiling and air drying for two years minimum, the briar is ready to sell. The longer the briar is aged, the more it’s worth. In some cases, the blocks are aged for decades before selling. Briar dealers inspect each block and assign it a quality grade. Carvers and manufacturers make their purchases based on the length of aging and the grading. The more money they spend, the chances of better blocks increases.
Conversely, there is the old saying that “even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn.” By that I mean even carvers/manufacturers on the lower end of the pay scale can and do occasionally find and produce a pipe worth more than what the end user pays.
Good smoking, low cost pipes…
Wait! What about Kaywoodie, Dr. Grabow, Wally Frank and other mass-produced pipes from the mid-20th century? My hypothesis is there weren’t as many high-end artisan carvers back then, so it was easier for them to get better grade briar. Also, despite not being “hand-made” the engineering on the pipes was very good. Large collecting communities for Kaywoodie and Dr. Grabow will attest to this.
While pipe smokers will continue to argue this question no matter what I say, I want to turn to one I consider an expert – Dr. Fred J. Hanna. His book, “The Perfect Smoke” published in 2012, is a collection of his essays about pipe smoking
I recommend the essays in Chapter Three of his book. “Choosing the Great Briar Pipe: Factors to Consider (Pages 91-102) discusses the 24 factors Hanna considers important for choosing a great briar pipe. These include the draught hole location and the size, the length of the tenon, the thickness of the bowl wall, etc.
The third essay in the book, “The Myth of Brand and Maker in Pipe Smoke and Tasting” (pages 111 – 124) is also very enlightening as he explains that “a great-smoking pipe is not the same as a great-tasting pipe.” (page 112) I also found his comment that, “The brand myth has the potential to harm our hobby. It can lead us to believe that only the wealthy collectors of high- and ultra-high-grade pipes can enjoy the truly sublime, superlative smoking and taste experience.” (page 124)