We pipe smokers come in every size, shape, color, and level of hairiness, and our preferences in pipes and tobaccos are as varied as we are. One thing we all have in common, however, is the need for fire. We have to light our tobaccos or we can't really be called pipe smokers. Lighters, too, appear in all kinds of permutations, though none are hairy.
A hairy lighter wouldn't be great anyway, so don't obsess about that. It would smell bad when it got wet and when the hair singed, and who wants to comb their lighter every time they go out? We don't need hairy lighters, but we do need efficient, cost-effective, dependable lighters. There are many, and it's difficult to choose between them, but I submit that there is one lighter that rises above the rest for daily, hard-use reliability: the Corona Old Boy.
I own and use or have experienced virtually every lighter, from disposables to Dunhill, from Colibri to S.T. Dupont, from Zippo to Xikar, and I love them all. They're amazing little engines of combustion that we can literally carry around in our pockets. They're astonishing miracles of engineering. But for a pipe smoker like myself who engages his lighter hundreds of times a day, the Corona Old Boy has proven itself an efficient workhorse and a terrific value.
Ignition is Essential
It's easily arguable that matches are the most efficient method of lighting one's pipe. They're inexpensive, lightweight, easy to carry, and they add a level of engagement in the process of pipe smoking, rituals that are particularly enjoyable for many of us. My late father-in-law used only matches, two at a time, and he tamped with them after each relight, so he didn't own a tamper. There were matches all over his house because he smoked all over his house — kitchen, bathrooms, his study, the family room, garage, cars, everywhere. He was never without his pipe. He also carried a box of matches with him, but if it was ever empty, he was within reach of more.
He was active in his business community and sometimes received gifts of expensive lighters, but he never used them. He was a match man. My wife and I once gave him a sterling silver match case, thinking he might like to dress up his accessories, and because he was a good man, he said he loved it, but we never saw it used. The green paper matchboxes that housed his matches when purchased were a little ugly, in my opinion, but they were what he preferred. He had developed his process and he found comfort in it. He smoked only Granger tobacco, smoked only straight Pots of the no-name variety, used only matches, and he adored pipe smoking.
Matches have a lower temperature and are less likely to damage the rim of a pipe than lighters. I've used them off and on for years, and can't say I don't like them, but I do have an issue with their aroma. Some may say that my future is likely to reek of sulfur and I should get used to it, but I'm an optimist. Because I need hundreds a day, matches cause excess smoke and stench, and since I smoke inside, primarily, that's an issue. However, if you aren't dismayed by their ignition characteristics, they may be the best option for you.
Matches have a lower temperature and are less likely to damage the rim of a pipe than lighters
The primary advantage of pipe lighters is their angled flame. A 90-degree flame makes lighting a pipe easy and intuitive. Bic-style lighters are inexpensive, reliable, and easy to find, but they lack that angled flame and make it difficult to light a pipe — not impossible, of course, and some grow accustomed to it, but I appreciate the angle of a pipe lighter.
Different Pipe Lighters
Loosely described as "disposable" because they cost less than $10, disposable pipe lighters are refillable, with replaceable flints and even built-in tampers, so they aren't really disposable, but they're almost always out-of-stock everywhere. There are a few weird ones on Amazon that I have not tried, but based on the photos and descriptions, they seem like a gamble. It's better to find them through a tobacco shop, in my opinion, where they're easier to get replaced if necessary, and smoke shops are unlikely to have inventory that doesn't represent a good value.
I'm hard on lighters and the disposables that I've owned have rarely lasted more than months. They're great for travel, though, especially because TSA agents are inconsistent with allowable lighters. If the TSA wants to stop my disposable from flying, it's an inconvenient circumstance but not ruinous. However, if they flag my Dunhill or S.T. Dupont, there will be skepticism, objection, protest, and handcuffs in my future. So I don't travel with a Dunhill or S.T. Dupont. I travel with a disposable, and I'm thankful anytime a decent one is available.
Zippos are wonderful and very engaging for those of us who fidget with our lighters. They're fun to open and snap shut, and every pipe smoker should have one; they're just iconic. The chief advantage of Zippo pipe lighters is their performance in wind. Butane pipe lighters tend to have trouble if the air is moving with any alacrity, but Zippos perform in nature. There's also a staggering selection of case styles to select from. Zippo pipe inserts will fit in standard cases, so pipe lighters have as much variety as the upright design. These lighters last seemingly forever, and if they don't, Zippo will fix or replace them.
The chief advantage of Zippo pipe lighters is their performance in wind
The one complaint people tend to have is the flavor of the fuel, though it's easily dispelled by allowing the flame to burn for a couple of seconds before applying it to the tobacco. The flame is also cooler than that of butane and presents a wide burning surface. I personally prefer a more focused flame, however, and while I gravitate to a Zippo for outside use, if I know it will be a still day, I'll use a butane lighter.
When you're as tough on lighters as I am, it's hard to justify one that costs $500 or more because daily hard use causes natural wear that's heartbreaking on a piece of flammable jewelry, and they really are jewelry, with their lacquer, gold, and silver finishes. And they perform very well indeed. Dunhill and S.T. Dupont lighters are wonderful to use. They have a substantial heft, they feel solid, and their mechanisms are precise and sturdy — they are engineering wonderments and just a delight to handle and use.
When we talk about hard-use lighters, lighters that ride in your pocket with your keys and pocket knife, lighters that sometimes end up going through the wash cycle with your pants, we typically aren't talking about lighters of precious metal and lacquer. It should be noted that many people appreciate the scars and character of a lighter that's seen action, and I'm among them with lighters that are more accessibly priced. But I like my fancy lighters to maintain their original finish. They don't go in a pocket but reside on my desk, where it's safe, and they don't see daily use. Intermittently, I'll decide to use them through a full tank of fuel, and then I put them away for a few months or until a special occasion arises. I enjoy them and they are worth the process to me.
It should be noted that many people appreciate the scars and character of a lighter that's seen action
Because I don't risk them with constant use, they last forever. My S.T. Dupont and Dunhill lighters are as beautiful now as when I bought them years ago. I have a sterling silver Sillem's lighter that I use only on Christmas. It was a gift from a dear friend, and I want to maintain its beauty and efficiency for the rest of my life. A one-day-a-year lighter is pretty self-indulgent, but I enjoy it and appreciate it every year, and it makes my pipes feel special for special occasions. I'd be devastated to watch it become scratched or to have to retire it from overuse.
The Best Hard-Use Lighter
That brings us to the workhorse of the pipe lighter family: the IM Corona Old Boy, my favorite lighter. What I mean by "hard-use" is basically what works well and stands up to my excessive daily smoking. I smoke from eight to 10 pipes a day, and I don't light them and smoke through to the end. Because I'm a writer, I need both hands to type, but whenever I have trouble finding a word or am flummoxed by sentence construction, I pause and light my pipe, take a couple of puffs to find my solution, and put it down. That means I'm relighting dozens of times to complete a bowl.
I light my pipe hundreds of times a day, every day, from my morning coffee to bedtime. Therefore, I consider myself a good proving ground for dependability in lighters. If a lighter lasts two years for me, it will last 10 for someone more circumspect in their smoking routine. My use is more excessive than that of most pipe smokers, so it's important to me that my lighters are robust.
One should consider their own smoking requirements when choosing the right lighter. Lighters are like any tool and should be considered for the kind of use they will receive. If you are an avid gardener, for example, with an acre of vegetables, you'll need a more robust rototiller than someone who prepares only a couple of rows of vegetables each year, and you'll need to spend more for the longevity necessary for long-term dependability. I consider the Corona a great value because I would eventually spend more to replace other lighters.
If you smoke only a couple of bowls of tobacco a week, you have no need for a lighter that will stand up to my kind of smoking. For me, though, the lighter that has proven its worth is the Corona Old Boy. It's the least expensive option because it lasts.
Lighters are like any tool and should be considered for the kind of use they will receive
I'm not alone. Corona Old Boys are ubiquitous at pipe shows. I see them everywhere. They are the most popular lighter for serious pipe people, so others have apparently reached the same conclusion.
The Corona isn't an inexpensive lighter and typically falls anywhere from $120-$180, depending on their cases, which can be remarkably complex, like the Arabesque Silver, or relatively simple, like the Black & Chrome. They are the same lighters with the same ignition characteristics and dependability; the only difference is the style of their cases. Sillem's lighters are IM Corona Old Boys, but with elevated case materials of silver and/or enamel. They cost more, but what you're paying for is their beauty. Erik Stokkebye's 4th Generation and Peterson lighters are also in the style of Corona Old Boys, and they carry particularly attractive prices.
Other options, like the Kiribi, are solid lighters, too. They don't quite have the overbuilt longevity of the IM Corona, but they are attractive, efficient, and more than adequate for those who don't torture and overwork their lighters, and they are good values in their price range — with a variety of models, casings, and finishes to choose from.
For hard use, the IM Corona is a marvelous machine. It has a great weight and is available in a large number of case styles. And the Old Boy design is efficient. It's easy to refill and it's easy to change the flints, and the lighters have an internal tamper and pick, which is a convenience that I appreciate.
The IM Corona is a marvelous machine
They have personality. When the fuel begins to get low, the flame increases as a signal that it's time for a refill. The tamper is streamlined and fully removable, but a half-twist when it's partially extended will lock it in place, making the whole lighter a tamper when you don't want to completely disengage it. It also has a large fuel tank, which is convenient for the amount of work I put it through.
The one problem I've noted, aside from their weakness in windy conditions, is that the hinge spring on the lift arm can get spongy over time, sometimes leading to a gradual loss of fuel. They can be sent back for repair without cost, but I've found that after repair they last only another year or so before another repair is necessary. An IM Corona will last me about four to five years before I decide to retire it. I've ended up with a drawer full of them over the years, and now and then I'll send a few in for repair and be flush with lighters for a while, which is a great feeling that costs nothing.
No lighter lasts forever, not for me, anyway. Maybe smokers who are more reasonable with their accessories can expect more. If you smoke only a couple of bowls a day, virtually any lighter will be adequate. But if you're plowing multiple acres of tobacco smoke every day, like me, you'll find better long-term value in an IM Corona Old Boy.