Blog by Norman Skiba
This is written with all due respect to the late Meerschaum master Fred Bass. I have tried to read all I could by Fred, and I have learned a lot; however, some things are maybe a bit over the top for me and my life. His knowledge and skill about caring and reworking meers is also most impressive, and again, way beyond my means and knowledge and needs. So after recently picking my way through more than half of the stuff I have collected by Fred (writings, thoughts, and comments he has made in relation to others on a smokers forum), I have been pondering as well as observing what I do when smoking and caring for my meers.
At the outset, I must say that I am quite anal about my meers. I never touch the bowls – hot or cold – and I handle them with an old clean piece of white t-shirt that is multi folded so it is not just single thickness. When cleaning or filling the pipe I always touch the pipe with this material. I use as many cleaners as I need depending on the bowl, the pipe, and the fact that my tobacco of choice is a very heavy English Latakia blend. I use a clean pipe cleaner after the bowl is emptied. I smoke anywhere from 2-4/5 bowls before they are taken apart for better cleaning. Again it really depends – I am being generous in my 5 bowl total. I usually smoke 2 bowls back-to-back. Then maybe another bowl or two the next day. I then would clean it. Between the 2nd and the 3rd bowl I usually run a clean pipe cleaner with the end dipped in vodka to clean the funk out of the stem. Makes the next bowl or 2 a nice smoke – not from the vodka, but from the light cleaning it offers. A tasty smoke as opposed to a funky off tasting smoke. I then take the pipe apart and clean it out. After I do a bowl or two in a day I also twist a paper towel into the bowl chamber to wipe out the remnants. I also do this when I do a good pipe cleaning. I use regular pipe cleaners and maybe a heavy pipe cleaner for the actual shank along with Q-tips. I Have never used a shank brush but have thought about getting a few, but after 45 plus years of meers it seems to work for me the way I have been doing it so why change. As an old deceased friend of mine used to say re: Linux which we both run – ‘If it is not broke then don’t fix it; and if you can’t fix, then don’t break it!’ So once again, this seems to be the original premise behind my thoughts on this little bit of prose. I never used Everclear even though Fred and others use it – it always seemed to me that a cheap vodka worked nicely, so why change it.
I learned and practiced 45 years ago to hold meers by their stems and not touch them. I have pondered just handling them in various ways; however, I never made the plunge. With good waxing they are sticky. I also am ‘into’ the coloring of the meer. So why taint it with my fingerprints and smeers. It makes it tough as an old fart with 30 yrs of crippling arthritis throughout my body and with fingers and hands that are all bent out of shape – literally. And swollen. So I am so very careful and have come close to an accident or two. (I actually dropped a beautiful fine smoking Preben years ago – lucky – no dent at all on the briar, but the stem snapped. It hit a clump of grass and dirt. Mike Myers of Walker Pipe Repair did a super job in replacing the stem with a similar or same stem – I do not remember the specifics now – and it also was a very speedy job too. He expedited the fix for me.) So they are more fragile as such. When tamping the tobacco and especially when cleaning the ash and funky tobacco out if that be the case at the end of a bowl – be very careful to not hit the edge of the bowl when tamping or use the edge of the bowl to pry the leftover tobacco out. I accidentally hit the edge ever so lightly with the tamper on a signed I. Baglan Bacchus I had years ago and a chip was out of the rim. I cried! Man I did not want to do that. I was so upset and eventually just went with the flow. So – Be Careful! Aesthetically – that just blows it. The smoke will still be whatever the smoke was before the nick happened. Just been there and done that!
In regard to waxing: I do not and never have melted wax and plugged the bowl’s airways and dipped it. For me; not going there. I have also read numerous times that wax, and I guess they are all different, have certain flash points that will become flammable. I am not sure how many people have had such a negative experience, but i do not want to go there either. Some never apply wax or rarely. I apply wax quite a bit and as Fred says it becomes a ritual in a sense. Wax protects the block of meerschaum as well as aiding in the coloring. CAO in the 1970’s used to sell a whitish wax in a lip balm applicator. I now use 100% pure beeswax that I get from Mohawk Valley Trading Company in Utica, New York. https://www.tenonanatche.com/beeswax.htm The olfactory Quality is wonderful and when you apply it to the pipe the aroma is really nice. I have bought from them 2x and no problems ever. I used to apply it from the bar; however, I recently read that Fred pours his own and he then cuts the thinner small sheets into diamonds or triangles. So I recently just randomly cut them into various triangular looking pieces and found that the edges and the pointed areas can aid in applying was to complex carved pieces — like eyes, beards, nooks and crannies, and florals and lattice work unlike the bar. (So you see – an old dog CAN learn a new trick.) I am glad I read that. It makes a big difference. Fred tends to rub off the excess wax and maybe even pick out the excess wax from places; and I have done, and still do the opposite. I tend to get wax chunks into the eyes and beards etc. and as I smoke and warm the pipe – especially after a couple or few bowls – the wax starts melting and running down into other areas. I leave what I can and after numerous smokes it soon is absorbed into the block. Since I smoke Latakia – you do get black particles and dust on certain places on the top of the pipe from filling. Some gets wiped off with the white cloth and other I just let go. I may try a soft toothbrush in the future but maybe not. Fred also uses Everclear on the outside of his meers. I never have. But he knows what he is doing, I am just trying to take care and use and enjoy my pipes and be as diligent as I can. Maybe if I was younger and know what I know now, and had a cheaper pipe to experiment with I would develop more aspects to care and cleaning and maintenance. But that is the way it goes. I also have not painted wax on a pipe either. But as Fred says, on 3D complex lattice pipes that seems to be a good way to apply wax to the intricate hard to get areas. I also have read about smoking chambers. Not for me. Why make it more complex? Smoke the pipe, and clean it, and wax it, and let the pipe color as it is going to color.
Years ago I also heard of blowing the smoke onto the pipe to aid in coloring. I used to do it, but now I smoke it and that is it! Lastly – one overlooked aspect of smoking a pipe – briar or meer – is admiring and looking at the piece and studying and taking pleasure on what the pipe maker/carver has offered for your pleasure. I think many people look at the beauty of a pipe and that is that. It seems as isolated from the actual smoking experience. Pipe is empty and you like at and admire it. You purchase it because it is so nice. Others see it or you show it off and that is just what it is. But it is an isolated experience that is fine as it is, but it is not integrated into the actual art and experience and pleasure of smoking that pipe with your favorite tobacco.
So sit back and light up a bowl and enjoy the complete experience of a pipe. And don’t forget to wax.
Addendum: I wanted to add that I, and Fred also smoke the pipe and apply wax to it as the pipe is smoked and warm. As the pipe warms the wax will become soft and easier to apply, even to the not so warm or colder areas. He also cold waxes it too from what i have read. I have tried it a couple of times but hesitate to do that. At the end of the bowl(s) he empties the ash and residual tobacco and then he uses the warm pipe to keep applying the wax while it still is warm and you can then tip the pipe – clean of ash, etc. – and wax the underside areas of the pipe not easily done while the embers are still in the pipe and burning.