The oldest continuously operating pipe factory in the world, Peterson produces some of the most recognizable and iconic pipes on the market. They've been featured in exhibitions, films, and television shows for the past century; many famous writers, artists, and inventors smoked a Peterson pipe, including Mark Twain, whose love for his System pipe is still perhaps unparalleled to this day. Even those uninvolved in our hobby likely think of a Peterson when asked to imagine a pipe. Yet few recognize that the marque's iconic aesthetic is largely informed by the functional design of their most important contribution to the history of pipemaking: the System Pipe.
Love it or hate it, the System isn't just a novelty offered by Peterson; it is the Peterson pipe. Its engineering and overall design are intertwined with the marque's foundation and raison d'être. They're the invisible source behind Peterson's unique Irish aesthetic — its muscular shank and transition, tubular profile, and generous bend. The marque's overall shaping style has a distinctly antique form because it has remained largely unchanged for over 120 years.
Despite the System's historical significance and popularity, many remain unimpressed by Peterson's most important innovation. Until recently, I counted myself among the naysayers. It wasn't until I read Mark Irwin's and Gary Malmberg's extraordinary new book, The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson, that my own thoughts on the System pipe evolved. As it turns out, I'd either taken for granted or misunderstood nearly everything about the System's design and intention. It was clear that a broader understanding of the System pipe, from its history and composition, to its functionality and maintenance, is essential to achieving the design's full capabilities.
Charles Peterson & the System Pipe's Practical Origins
To understand Peterson's System and how it was intended to work, we need some context, in particular regarding its creator, Charles Peterson.
In 1874, Frederick Kapp opened a tobacco and pipe shop in Dublin; within a year a young Latvian woodworker named Charles Peterson was employed there. During his first years with the Kapps, Peterson made and repaired briar and meerschaum pipes, thinking critically about how to improve their design. In 1890, after 15 years of handling and repairing multitudes of pipes, Charles secured a patent in his own name, titled "A certain new and useful improvement in Tobacco-Pipes," introducing a unique system comprised of a higher draft hole and a moisture reservoir bored into the shank and transition of a briar pipe. Over the next eight years, Charles continued to refine his System, applying for and securing patents for a graduated bore mouthpiece (1891), and a unique button design known today as the P-Lip (1894-1898).
Don't worry too much about the dates. While important for demonstrating the timelessness of the Peterson pipe, what's more interesting than dates is the intention behind the System pipe's innovation. It's how Charles Peterson approached his invention — as a practical pipesmoker, rather than a theorist. When considered in combination, Peterson's series of patents are remarkably intuitive. Unlike novelty pipes of the time, and even those appearing many years later, Peterson's System involved zero fancy gadgets and superfluous materials. It's a simple design that relies on physics and a pipesmoker's natural habits. In The Peterson Pipe, Mark Irwin states, "No doubt the Peterson System did survive for all these decades because the design worked as advertised." And that's it. Created by a practical pipesmoker with 15 years of experience repairing and improving pipes, the System simply worked, and has continued to work for over 120 years.
What is the System? A Closer Look at the Patents
Charles Peterson's System pipe is comprised of three parts: An army mount, an internal reservoir to collect moisture from the smoke (patented 1890), and the graduated bore P-Lip mouthpiece (patented 1894 and 1898).
The Army Mount
While not exclusive to Peterson, the army or military mount is an essential feature of a System pipe. For those unfamiliar, an army mount reinforces the mortise, traditionally one of the weakest points of a pipe, with a metal band or cap, which prevents the wood from expanding, warping, or even cracking with expansion from moisture or temperature. An army mount is typically paired with a tapered, or "push-style" tenon, which reduces the surface area in contact with the mortise and thus the amount of grip. The combination of army mount and push-style tenon permits the disassembly and cleaning of pipes at any time, even during a smoke, without risking damage to the mortise.
The System Drilling
The internal drilling of a System pipe, represented by Charles Peterson's original patent in 1890, is perhaps the most iconic and well-known of all System features. It's also perhaps one of the most misunderstood. Though a common misconception, Peterson's System bore was never designed to collect saliva; its function is entirely dedicated to cooling and wicking moisture away from the smoke. This is achieved in a two-part design. The draft hole is drilled higher than you might typically expect, allowing for a vast condensation chamber beneath. The smoke, then, travels through the draft hole and collects in the moisture reservoir before ever entering the stem. Peterson's System pipes are inherently stout and muscular, particularly around the shank and transition, because that extra material is necessary to house the higher draft hole and condensation chamber. What's more, the overall design of the two-part System drilling has remained unchanged since its initial patent in 1890, meaning that even current production Petersons honor the tradition and innovation of Charles' original model.
The P-Lip Mouthpiece
Of all the features that comprise a System pipe, the P-Lip bit is perhaps the most polarizing. Many lifetime Peterson enthusiasts swear by it; others spend hours on the forums advocating its abolishment. Mark Irwin suggests that this divisiveness among modern pipesmokers is a product of a misunderstanding of its history, function, and overall purpose.
Indeed, while you will find System pipes with fishtail bits, the now iconic P-Lip mouthpiece is integral to Charles Peterson's original System design. The graduated bore mouthpiece and P-Lip button were two of Charles' last System patents, final amendments to his original System design and crucial to its function.
The unsung hero of the true System stem, Peterson's graduated bore mouthpiece tapers from a 5mm opening at the tenon to 1.5mm at the P-Lip button. So what does it do? According to a 1987 Peterson ad, "the unique graduated bore of the mouthpiece made the suction 15 times weaker when it reached the tobacco chamber. So all the bitter tars and moisture float into the reservoir and could never reach the mouth." Again relying on physics and a pipesmokers natural habits, this 1894 patent is simple yet effective, essentially slowing the speed of the smoke as it leaves the tobacco chamber and allowing it to pool in the condensation chamber before entering the stem. Without this invisible, yet critical, feature, the System drilling simply wouldn't work as proficiently.
In Charles Peterson's original System patents, the button was similar to other designs of the time, featuring a small aperture directly centered at the end of a thick and rounded bit. While the rest of the System still worked efficiently — thanks to the graduated bore mouthpiece, moisture reservoir, and army mount — Charles still saw opportunities for improvement, so he continued to innovate, altering the appearance and engineering of the button to work more seamlessly with the rest of the System design. By the time he secured his last System patent in 1898, Charles' System mouthpiece featured a half dome-shaped button with a 1.55mm aperture positioned at an upward angle along the top of the bit, rather than directly centered at the end. It was a curiously shaped bit for the time, and still is to this day, yet its design was meant to serve a three-fold function.
By repositioning the 1.5mm opening to the top of the stem, Charles created a simple yet effective solution to a concern that plagues pipesmokers to this day: Tongue bite. The angled aperture draws the smoke upward toward the roof of the mouth, effectively preventing the tongue from coming into direct contact with the smoke. Moreover, Charles believed that the smaller, angled opening of the P-Lip helped disperse the smoke and its flavor across the entire tongue. There are thousands of taste buds spread across the palate, and many find that a P-Lip bit does provide a more accurate perception of the tobacco's flavor. Lastly, the P-Lip's actual shape, as curious as it may seem, was designed first and foremost for comfort. The half-dome shape of the button offers a natural place for the tongue to rest when smoking, especially when clenching.
Maintaining its unique appearance and design for over 120 years, the P-Lip is remarkably old-school and a critical part of the timeless aesthetic of Peterson pipes. But, as I mentioned before, it is also perhaps the most polarizing of all Charles Peterson's System patents. Given how different it is from all other mouthpieces created in the last 100+ years (excepting the myriad P-Lip facsimiles from other makers and marques), that divisiveness is not surprising. In fact, I used to denounce the P-Lip any chance I could get. Of course, that all changed once I learned how to properly smoke and maintain my System pipes.
How to Smoke & Clean a Peterson System Pipe
For those who have tried and dismissed the System pipe, it's possible you either weren't smoking or cleaning it properly. No judgements, there. Before I read Mark Irwin's book, I too improperly smoked my Peterson System pipes.
Take the P-Lip bit, for example. As I mentioned earlier, I loathed them. I found P-Lips to be awkward and uncomfortable in the mouth, and could never understand their appeal or usefulness in combating tongue bite. After learning that the P-Lip bit is actually designed to rest atop the tongue, however, I immediately began to experience a fuller flavor profile from any blend I threw at it. I won't lie: It seemed odd at first, especially since I was so accustomed to the thin fishtail bits of high end artisan pipes, but after a while, tucking my tongue beneath the button became natural.
No doubt the Peterson System did survive for all these decades because the design worked as advertised.
Perhaps even more important than those realizations is understanding how to properly clean and maintain a System pipe. If you've been smoking, ashing, and cleaning your System pipe the same way you'd clean your Dunhill or artisan briar, your experiences probably haven't been great. I can empathize. After finishing a bowl in my Peterson, I used to turn it upside down and ash out the dottle. What I didn't realize is that by doing that immediately after or during a smoke, I was actually draining the moisture collected in the reservoir directly into the tobacco chamber. When I went to relight or smoke another bowl later, the flavor was acrid and repellant; I thought my System was faulty.
Don't be like me; here are some tips to help optimize your System pipe:
- Shortly after a smoke, remove the stem from the army mount. Don't worry about the pipe being hot; with the military mount, you needn't worry about mortise warping or cracks.
- Wick out the moisture reservoir and inside of the shank before dumping the ash. Mark Irwin recommends taking a bit of tissue, twisting it, and inserting it into the shank until it fully engages with the well. He also recommends doing this while the pipe is still hot, as the moisture flows better. You can even tilt the pipe up, with the shank facing the floor, to further drain the well. Once the tissue is in place, it's fine to dump the ash from your bowl.
- After drying the moisture well and emptying the ash, fold a fluffy pipe cleaner and swab out the reservoir, then use a bristled pipe cleaner to scrub the walls of the shank. Then run a tapered pipe cleaner through the stem. The tapered end should fit nicely into the P-Lip's aperture, while the broader end will work better for the larger opening at the base of the stem.
- Once everything is swabbed and cleaned, fight the urge to reassemble the pipe. A Peterson pipe should rest with the stem detached from the bowl, as it allows everything to dry out nicely. It's best to let it rest apart at least overnight. This is a hard one for most pipe smokers because it counters how we maintain most pipes. But again with the military mount, you don't have to worry about mortise damage.
- Finally, every once in a while, it's good to clean out the moisture well and shank with Everclear or your favorite spirit. If you're familiar with the salt solution method, that works wonders too in keeping a System pipe tasting clean.
At this point, you're likely thinking, "Man, System pipes are kinda high maintenance." And you're not wrong. They require upkeep, but they're also the most durable and reliable designs on the market, if taken care of. In fact, many pipesmokers have found that maintaining their System pipes has become a calming and enjoyable routine. As Mark states in his book, "... hobbyists who are also sportsmen, do-it-yourselfers or have a military background will find caring for their pipes, like caring for the tools and gear in other areas of their lives, only adds to their enjoyment." Think of your Peterson System pipe as a field tool: It can endure extreme use in extreme conditions, but that doesn't mean you can neglect it.
Who is the System Pipe for? Appeal to Beginners & Experts Alike
If properly smoked and maintained, a System pipe is an excellent choice for new pipesmokers. Many people have taken up pipesmoking and quickly abandoned the hobby after first experiencing tongue bite or tasting acrid condensation. With a System pipe, a new pipesmoker needn't worry about those things and can simply concentrate on honing their cadence, discovering their preferred tobaccos, and enjoying the calm serenity of drawing one puff after the other. The System, though requiring a modified maintenance routine from other designs, is extremely forgiving. It's meant to be a life-long friend and companion.
... hobbyists who are also sportsmen, do-it-yourselfers or have a military background will find caring for their pipes, like caring for the tools and gear in other areas of their lives, only adds to their enjoyment.
For experienced pipesmokers, the System is a great choice because of its aspirational scale. One of the most intriguing aspects of artisanal pipes is their aesthetics, like stunning grain, bright finishes, and featured adornments such as precious metal accents. Peterson's System not only offers aspirational tiers, but is manufactured by a team that draws from over 125 years of experience and tradition. Peterson's silversmiths, for example, are renowned around the world for their hands-on approach, and the marque's high-end finishes are top-notch. For those who enjoy collecting, Peterson offers a variety of upgrades to choose from, including silver rim guards and gold spigots, as well as dazzling grain in lines like the System De Luxe.
Get to Know your Peterson System & De Luxe System Shapes
Now that you understand a little more about the System's history, how it works, and how best to maintain it, you might want to take a closer look at some of the shapes available in the line. The System's great and all, but it's also important to find a shape that best fits your tastes and lifestyle. Luckily, Peterson's System line is comprehensive. From classics like the Apple and Billiard to signatures like the "Bell" Calabash, the System spans a variety of shapes and sizes. Check out this shape chart for a glance at the range of shapes available.
If you've not considered a System pipe for a while, The Peterson Pipe by Irwin and Malmberg may reinvigorate your interest. It did mine. I learned that I'd been improperly cleaning and smoking my System pipes. The change since I've started using these pipes properly is dramatic, and if you're of a similar mindset, perhaps you'd find it beneficial to try again, with Charles Peterson-approved techniques, to discover whole new smoking experiences you may not have known were inherently available in the Peterson pipes you've let rest too long.
If you're interested in learning more about the System pipe or Peterson's history, you won't find a better resource than Mark Irwin's and Gary Malmberg's latest book, The Peterson Pipe, The Story of Kapp & Peterson. Carefully crafted over eight years, and relying on a lifetime of research, The Peterson Pipe is a masterpiece. I've written and thought about Peterson pipes for five years, yet all that collected knowledge is insignificant (and sometimes just plain wrong) compared to what Mark and Gary have compiled. Flipping through the beautifully illustrated pages, I honestly felt like a total noob. Mark and Gary brought me back to my first pipe club meetings and showed me a world I'd never even imagined. And they did so in a way that was neither patronizing nor demoralizing. Like an old mentor, they walked me step by step through Peterson's legacy, from early histories to detailed how-to's, always with an encouraging hand.
And for that, I'd like to just take a moment and thank Mark and Gary for their tremendous effort here, and for letting us summarize, paraphrase, and directly quote from this excellent resource. They've set the story straight and hopefully opened all of our eyes to the unique tradition, quality, and character behind the oldest continuously operating pipe factory in the world. For that, they have our undying gratitude. All the information for this post was pulled directly from The Peterson Pipe; combined with Mark's well-regarded Peterson Pipe Notes blog, it's the only Peterson resource we'll ever need.