Common Tobacco Pipe Materials: Briar, Meerschaum, and More

Tobacco Pipe Materials

Modern pipes are made from a number of materials: briar, meerschaum, clay, various woods like cherrywood and olivewood, corn cobs, morta (also called bog-oak), and gourds are the most popular. They've withstood generations of use and have proven to be good performers. For someone just deciding to explore pipe smoking, the vast selection can be intimidating. What are the benefits of one pipe material over another?

A smoking pipe can be made from almost any conceivable material, except maybe Jello. Jello pipes would be hard to clean and would most likely fail on the estate market, but most other materials have potential. The very earliest pipes were probably mere holes scooped from the ground in which tobacco was burned and its smoke inhaled through a reed, so arguably, pipes can be made from almost nothing as well as almost anything. Humans are tinkerers, though. We like to improve on pipes with better functioning designs, modern materials, advanced airflow engineering, and more inherent artistry. It took time to improve upon holes in the ground, but today we have some of the most beautiful, efficient, and high-performing pipes in history.

It's intriguing to think about how earlier generations may have experienced pipe smoking, especially in terms of how pipes were made and of what materials, since we can't really compare tobaccos with what was smoked 300 years ago. Those tobaccos were cured differently, if at all, and tasted different from the modern tobaccos that benefit from sophisticated genetics, curing, aging, and blending techniques. But most pipe materials used centuries ago are still available, and many smokers prefer them to current pipes. Clays are still popular, though not with the dominance they achieved in earlier European/American pipe history. Meerschaums and cobs are more popular today, and they certainly have ardent admirers.

... most pipe materials used centuries ago are still available

As we have developed smoking instruments over the centuries, we've popularized different kinds of pipes. The availability of materials contributes, but we've also found that some materials work better than others for our particular lifestyles, especially in terms of mobility, convenience, and durability. There are plenty of materials that make good pipes. They each embody different advantages and disadvantages, possess differences in longevity, and each affects the flavor of our favorite tobaccos in their own unique ways.

Historical Pipe Materials

Stone

Catlinite Tobacco Pipe

Catlinite Pipe

Perhaps the most well-known stone pipes are the Native American catlinite pipes of the Great Plains. Catlinite is more commonly known as pipestone, and its value to indigenous people is revealed in agreements between even warring tribes that its few quarries were off-limits to conflict. The people did not interfere with each other in the mining of pipestone, which was and is essential to ceremonial pipe construction. Pipestone quarries exist only in Pipestone County, Minnesota, and the Pipestone River in Ontario.

Catlinite is a reddish-brown stone and a type of argillite, a metamorphosed sedimentary clay, meaning it has changed under the natural pressure and heat of tectonic subduction. Much harder than clay, it is still finely grained and relatively easy to work with. Only hand tools are utilized for mining and only Native Americans are permitted to quarry pipestone at the Pipestone National Monument. The artistry of the American people who rendered these pipes is profound, and their ceremonial and religious significance elevated them to an art form.

only Native Americans are permitted to quarry pipestone at the Pipestone National Monument

Soapstone has also been used to fashion pipes, and it's another material that is fairly easy to work with. It's mainly metamorphosed magnesium-rich talc. Marble, onyx, and most other stones have also been used for pipes, though not in high numbers. Stone is heavy and presumably possesses neutral smoking qualities, but is impractical for daily smoking.

Argillites other than catlinite were used by Native Americans like the Haida Indians of the Northwest coast for some particularly detailed and complex pipe carvings. This argillite is darker and harder to work with than catlinite. The ceremonial and traditional aspects of these pipes have nurtured their continuance, and many pipes are carved for outside trade purposes.

Bone, Horn, and Antler

Not to be confused with Chris Morgan's Classic Bones pipes, which are so named because of their economical, bare-bones finishes, pipes made of animal bones have been discovered dating to 9,000 BCE in North America. In ancient China, bone opium pipes were common, but in the modern era, bone pipes are impractical and perhaps overly macabre.

Horn is an excellent medium for pipe accents and can be made into beautiful pipe tampers, such as those made by W.Ø. Larsen. Historically, horn has been fashioned into pipes in places like the Arctic region. Stag-horn is represented in pipes from Germany made through the 19th century and earlier, and a few even today. Large-scale production of pipes made from bone, horn, or antler is unattainable. Their smoking quality is questionable, though there's no doubt that people have loved pipes like these, yet other pipes have taken their place through the generations. They have by way of kapnismological Darwinism faded from popular thought.

Metal and Porcelain

Kiseru Tobacco Pipe

Kiseru Pipe

Porcelain breaks easily, and pipes made of it are difficult to transport and use daily without risk of destruction. A primary problem with metal and porcelain pipes is their lack of breathability and moisture absorption. Moisture is a natural byproduct of tobacco combustion because tobacco has water content and that water has to go somewhere when the tobacco is burned. Briar, meerschaum, other woods, and corn cobs have all proven to be superior in performance.

Metal pipes are perhaps most famously represented by the kiseru pipes of Japan. Their bowls are very small, though they tend to be comparatively long and lean overall, usually 6-12 inches. They are not pipes made for whiling away a few hours over a book as they generate only a few puffs of smoke.

Particularly interesting is that certain kiserus became martial arts weapons. They were called kenka kiseru, or fighting pipes, and were used by the yakuza, gangsters, and others motivated by self-defense. They tended to be longer than ceremonial kiseru, usually 12-16 inches, and were made of iron or brass. Samurai also advanced kiseru as weapons, known as buyōkiseru. A particular fighting style was developed to wield these dangerous pipes and was called kiseru-jutsu.

Porcelain pipes can be extraordinarily beautiful, but again they are fragile and impractical and don't dissipate heat very well. They were manufactured from the beginning of the 16th century and often used for German regimental pipes, which are large, long, and deeply bent with tall bowls topped by wind caps, and listed the names of a regiment's soldiers on the bowl. Other porcelain pipes were smaller and more akin to the clay pipes of their time in terms of proportion, but more colorful and whimsical.

Modern Pipe Materials

Some mediums have withstood time and hard use, proving to be practical as well as attractive. Choosing between them is a matter of taste and requirements for durability and longevity, as well as smoking quality.

Clay

Clay Tobacco Pipe

Clay Pipe

Perhaps the most traditional of pipes, clays were ubiquitous for the beginnings of tobacco use in Europe. They were relatively inexpensive to make and clay is readily available, though high-quality, white earthenware clay was sought. Typically the stems are rolled and a draft hole for smoke is made by inserting a reed or wire through them. Molds of various kinds and sizes are filled, baked, and they are left to dry, though a clay pipe can be made without a mold simply by hand-shaping it.

Clay pipes are tougher than glass or porcelain, but can still be on the brittle side if dropped or mishandled. Tavern pipes of previous centuries were often community pipes. Smokers would use a clay in their favorite pub and when finished, break off the inch of stem that contacted the mouth so the next smoker could have a clean smoke. After being rendered too short by multiple uses, it was discarded.

Tavern pipes of previous centuries were often community pipes

Clays possess some terrific advantages. They provide a pristine and neutral smoke so that tobacco can be tasted without the flavor influence that can arise from other pipes. Blenders often use clays to flavor test tobaccos so that they are tasting only the tobacco, an important feature for ascertaining the quality and characteristics of particular tobaccos.

Unfortunately, the bowls of clay pipes become very hot, too hot to touch. That's why traditional clays have nubs at their heels: so that while smoking, they could be rested on the arm of a chair, for example, without burning the furniture. They must be handled by their stems to avoid burns.

Millions upon millions of clays were manufactured during the height of their popularity. Entire shipwrecks stocked with thousands of clay pipes have been discovered. Contributing to their popularity was the ease with which they were cleaned. They were simply placed into the coals of a fireplace where the heat reduced any impurities to ash, leaving the pipe to emerge from its trial by fire in pristine condition.

Gourd

The Calabash is a large smoking pipe made from the calabash gourd, which grows from the calabash vine and is related to pumpkins. They are also known as bottle gourds, because they have been made into containers for centuries, and additionally, they are used to make musical instruments. The distinctive shape we know for Calabash pipes is artificially assured by placing the gourds on planks with wooden pegs to guide their growth with correct proportions and bend.

Traditional Calabash pipes utilize these gourds as the body of the pipe. A stem is fitted to the small end, of course, but gourd is not capable of withstanding the heat of direct tobacco combustion. Therefore, a separate tobacco chamber is fitted into the large end of the gourd. It's traditionally been meerschaum, but other materials like briar have been used as well.

The hollow gourd acts as a cooling chamber for the smoke, and most pipe smokers find the Calabash smoking experience to be exemplary. They aren't as convenient or easy to carry given their larger size. Most Calabashes cannot be set down without a stand because of their curvature, so smoking one mainly requires holding it in hand. Many smokers swear that the quality of smoke from a Calabash is superior, though, making them worth the slight inconvenience.

Many smokers swear that the quality of smoke from a Calabash is superior

The term "calabash" refers to pipes other than the traditional Calabash, however. It's also a shape in briar and meerschaum pipes, identifiable by their mushroom-shaped rims. And there are pipes made with reverse-Calabash engineering. The expansion chamber that resides under the bowl in a traditional Calabash is relocated to the oversized shank.

Gourd Calabashes are not in high supply. Many modern Calabash pipes are shaped from briar or other woods, maintaining the classic shape but with more attainable and resilient materials.

Morta

Bog Wood for Morta Tobacco Pipes

Bog Wood

Also known as bog oak, morta is an exotic, partially fossilized wood — mainly oak but yew and pine are also included. It's mainly found in Europe, where thousands of years ago, swamps and bogs were surrounded by oak trees, some of which would fall into the water.

Oak trees contain high levels of tannins or tannic acid. The compound is well-known for its ability to preserve and even mummify organic matter. When enough oak trees fell into the bogs and fens, the tannic acid content of the water rose, contributing to the preservation of those trees. Oak is already a resilient wood full of tannins, but when saturated in tannin-rich water, it is remarkably preserved and over time changes into bog oak.

Pipes made from morta are dark because the wood is dark. While smooth morta pipes are made, most are sandblasted, and the rich grain of the wood is especially pronounced. It is a material that smokes similarly to briar. Some say it doesn't smoke as cool; others disagree. It's worth trying because it's a beautiful wood, and everyone should make their own determination.

... most morta pipes are sandblasted, and the rich grain of the wood is especially pronounced

Other Woods

While briar is the most prevalent wood for pipe making, other woods also make fine smoking instruments. Cherry wood, olivewood, and pear wood are most prevalent. These materials impart their own unique, subtle flavor to the smoke, and experimentation is encouraged. They tend to be somewhat lighter than briar, with wider, more random grain patterns, and they are not as heat resistant.

Pipes made from fruit wood are excellent, but they can burn out more easily than briar if not carefully smoked and maintained. A briar pipe can last almost indefinitely, while pear, cherry, and olive are softer woods. It is especially important with these pipes that a good cake (protective carbon build-up) be fostered inside the tobacco chamber, and that they are lit with matches or soft-flame lighters, never the aggressive flames like those generated by torch lighters — which generally should be avoided when lighting any pipe.

Corn Cob

Cobs are perhaps the best starting point for any pipe smoker. They smoke well and have great flavor. Best of all, they are inexpensive and perfect for activities that might be too risky for more expensive pipes, like fishing, alligator wrestling, skydiving, and Black Friday sales. They are a natural choice when first experimenting with pipe smoking. Though perhaps less artfully sophisticated, they are available in a variety of sizes and possess the added quality of being deeply entrenched in American smoking tradition. They won't last as long as briar or meerschaum pipes, but because they are so reasonably priced, they represent excellent value.

Meerschaum

Sepiolite

Sepiolite

Among the most beautiful of pipe materials, meerschaum is mined primarily in Turkey, though some considered of lesser purity and quality originates in Africa, the Czech Republic, Spain, and the U.S. It's a mineral called sepiolite and gets its name from the German word for "sea foam," a reference to its extra-white shade.

Meerschaum pipe making began in earnest in the mid-1700s and quickly elevated to an art form. Very large, intricately carved pipes became status symbols. Some astonishing carvings exist. Sepiolite is easier to carve than wood; when it's wet, it has the approximate consistency of hard cheese, making it reasonable for artists to achieve remarkable compositions.

Meerschaum is porous and is treated by boiling it in beeswax to protect and seal its surface. It provides a very neutral smoke for those who prefer accuracy in their tobacco enjoyment. It's more brittle than wood, though, which is why most are fitted to their own wooden cases as a protectant. Advantages include that neutrality of flavor and also the ability to express oneself through the art of the carving. Available in all sizes and motifs, these pipes may project Greek gods or languishing femme fatales, or anything imaginable.

Among the most satisfying attributes of meerschaum is its tendency to patinate with use. The more one smokes a meerschaum, the more the material responds with tones of pink and maroon and earthy browns. A well-smoked and well-colored meerschaum possesses remarkable character and profound beauty. Because the smoker participates in and generates the color changes, a partnership is fostered and a relationship grows over the years. Every smoke enjoyed in a meerschaum evolves the beauty of the pipe.

Synthetics

The 1960s brought many new materials into existence thanks to modernized processes and advancements in chemistry, manufacturing, and even aviation. Different plastics and resins were used for pipes in the '60s, some of them made from the same heat-resistant materials developed for space flight.

Pyrolytic graphite was employed to line plastic pipe bowls but lost popularity by the mid-1970s. A high-temperature resin called Brylon was introduced in 1966, and it was in use until just a few years ago, mainly by the S.M. Frank Co., makers of Kaywoodie, Yello-bole, and Medico pipes. When the last remaining machinery for its manufacture needed yet more repair, it was decided to retire it, and Brylon pipes are no more.

Synthetic pipes were inexpensive and extraordinarily heat resistant, but most who have tried them think they smoke a little hotter and wetter than other pipes. Still, there are enthusiasts and collectors who appreciate them and like their performance.

Briar

Tobacco Pipe Briar Grain

Briar Grain

Briar is today's most common and most popular pipe material. The best briar is grown in the Mediterranean region where the sandy soil and arid weather conditions promote the most resilient wood for pipes. The same species of heath tree grows in the U.S. and elsewhere, but it is not as dense and heat resistant, presumably because of the different climates. Called mountain laurel, it was used for pipes during WWII when briar supplies disappeared, but once Mediterranean briar was again available, those pipes were no longer sought.

Briar is a beautiful wood with fine, dense grain and warm color tones. The wood used for pipes is that of the root burl of the heath tree, which is, naturally, underground and must be arduously dug up, and that's not the end of the work. Sawmills gather briar from across the region and must cut it into appropriate sizes and grades and boil it for days to remove tannins and resins from the wood. Typically, any burl less than 50 years old is too small to be useful. Briar also absorbs moisture, insulates heat, and imparts a pleasant flavor. Pipe makers across the globe have specialized in briar since its discovery as a pipe material in France in the 1860s.

Pipe makers can do astonishing things with briar, as is easily ascertained by browsing any pipe website. New briar pipes can cost from $40 to unimaginable sums, as with any craft. Disadvantages are few. Briar is tough and can be transported in a pocket without much worry, though it can be dented like other woods if dropped or bumped.

Briar pipes can last almost forever if smoked properly and reasonably maintained. Because briar is nearly indestructible under normal circumstances, it's a great value for pipe smokers.

Today's pipe enthusiasts have great choices in pipes, not only in the materials employed, but in the artistry within each type. Most pipe smokers have a few examples of each type in their collections. They may like meerschaums for reading or watching films, corn cobs for camping, morta for fun diversity, clays for neutral tobacco flavors, and briars for just about any occasion. The choices are many, but once the characteristics of each are understood, it's easy to know which is best for whatever your lifestyle requires.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Calabash Pipe Making Pipe Science

Comments

    • Amber on July 2, 2022
    • Oh Chuck,We so loved the article because it reinforced the reason why we are so fascinated with pipes. It's true, the pipe and the tobacco makes the smoke you desire. Dominic and I are fortunate to live in a desert-like climate where tobacco is somewhat preserved when kept in a tobacco humidifying copper lined smoking stand. But, the pipe, combined with the appropriate tobacco makes for such a special time. Thank you for making our collection make sense...

    • SO on July 3, 2022
    • Thank you for another very informative article.

    • StuM on July 3, 2022
    • Heh heh heh “…Black Friday sales…”

    • Ken on July 3, 2022
    • You ended the part on meerschaum with the what the ?

    • Chris on July 3, 2022
    • Thanks again for such an informative article. This information just reinforces my passion for pipe smoking.

    • Don on July 3, 2022
    • What Ken said

    • Don Ward on July 3, 2022
    • What Ken said

    • Kris Olenski on July 3, 2022
    • This is the kind of information any new (or old) smoker needs to start smoking a pipe.

    • Stan Ruszkowski on July 3, 2022
    • As usual, Chuck wrote a great article.

    • DAVE SOMMER on July 4, 2022
    • Chuck,How do you think up these notes every month? You are a wonderful writer and you really know how to keep me interested. Please continue your expertise in the written word. And besides that you are a neat person.

    • Saurasri Sen on July 4, 2022
    • Ken,I think Chuck wanted to say "the more one smokes a meerschaum,the more beautiful/the more golden brown the patina becomes or something for that matter". However,a fine piece of writing full of information,Chuck,as always flows from your pen!

    • Dan on July 4, 2022
    • Heh heh heh "... alligator wrestling..." 🤣

    • Chuck Stanion on July 4, 2022
    • Ken: Whoa, that was quite an oversight on my part, and embarrassing. It's fixed now, with gratitude for the help in keeping these articles readable.

    • Joseph Kirkland on July 4, 2022
    • Kudos! Another great article, Chuck. So refreshing to read.By the way, corn cob pipes are great for Ranger School! I still have my three.

    • Mark on July 6, 2022
    • Thank you, Chuck. I always enjoy your informative articles, often suffused with wry humor.

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