As a history lover, I actively seek out and absorb as much interesting information about the past as possible. Fortunately for me, that curiosity translates well into my current job and my interest in the pipe-smoking hobby as a whole. That endless, enthusiastic drive for wisdom is a foundational pillar for Smokingpipes and helps inform our descriptions and enables pipe smokers around the world to gain knowledge about the craft, the makers, and the materials used. We have numerous resources at our disposal and experts within the field that can answer nearly any conceivable pipe-smoking question. Well, at least most pipe-smoking inquiries — we're still developing methods for smoking in the shower and programming tiny robots to pack bowls for us.
Meerschaum, or sepiolite as it's known by its mineral name, or Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O for those who prefer complex chemical formulas.
It was after doing some reading and reflecting that I became interested in learning more about the materials used to fashion pipes, more specifically, meerschaum. I admittedly had only a surface level knowledge about the pale white medium but wanted to know more about its history, the process of harvesting it, and how it's eventually carved into a smoking instrument. I became fascinated with learning about when meerschaum was introduced to the pipe-making world, how artisans carve the blocks into intricate pieces of functional art, and how it has endured as one of the oldest mediums in pipe making. We've previously talked about the appealing characteristics of meerschaum pipes and the process of coloring them, and Chuck even described some of his favorite figural meers, but we've yet to deeply explore the medium and how it eventually becomes a pipe. I couldn't keep my findings to myself, so I decided to share them in this blog and hope you as a reader will take something away from it or perhaps find it educational from a pipe smoker's perspective.
Meerschaum, or sepiolite as it's known by its mineral name, or Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O for those who prefer complex chemical formulas, is a soft white clay mineral renowned for its flavor-neutral smoking properties, light weight, moisture absorbency, and high heat-resistance. Though its exact geologic origin remains unknown, one popular — though unfounded — theory suggests that meerschaum may be the product of the shells and bones of small prehistoric sea creatures, combined and compressed over millions of years. The name itself, "sepiolite," comes from the Greek word sepion, meaning "cuttlebone," due to the mineral's resemblance to the internal shell of the cuttlefish, and is attributed to mid-19th century German mineralogist Ernst Friedrich Glocker.
While it's primarily associated with Turkish pipe making, the word "meerschaum" is comprised of the German words meer, meaning "sea," and schaum, meaning "foam." There are conflicting reports regarding who exactly named it meerschaum, but it's thought to have come from its visual similarity, including its light weight and high porosity, to actual sea foam.
Coloring Bowl by IMP Meerschaum
Meerschaum's introduction as a pipe-making medium has been attributed an origination in Budapest, Hungary during the early 18th-century (1723 is the date most often referenced). The story goes that a Budapest noble named Count Andrassy, who served as an envoy to Turkey, brought two blocks of meerschaum back home with him. The Count gave the blocks to a cobbler and pipe smoker named Karl (various sources spell his last name as Kovacs or Kowates) and commissioned the shoemaker to carve the blocks into tobacco pipes. After Karl completed carving the pipes, Count Andrassy kept one and gave the other to the shoemaker as a form of payment for his services. Karl smoked his creation over several weeks while making shoes and made an important observation one day. After unintentionally getting some of his cobbler's beeswax on the pipe, Karl detected the wax greatly improved the meerschaum's ability to color, and he promptly covered the pipe in beeswax, watching the patina spread more evenly across the stummel's surface the more he smoked.
In the following century, meerschaum pipes grew in popularity among European pipe smokers and were in high demand. However, unlike the clay pipes which were widely available and inexpensive, meerschaum pipes were primarily reserved for the wealthy, as only they could afford to commission an artist to carve one. The meerschaum pipe gradually became a stylish accessory, with everyone trying to surpass one another, and most likely gave rise to the intricately carved figural pieces that are still loved by pipe smokers in the modern era. Impressively intricate and figural meerschaums were also viewed by some as art objects, many people simply buying meerschaum pipes to display in their cabinets and on their shelves. But for some who still wanted their pipes to take on color, the wealthy would hire people to smoke their meerschaums for hours or instructed the pipe maker to smoke the pipe for a few weeks before delivering it so that it would develop a patina.
While it's primarily associated with Turkish pipemaking, the word "meerschaum" is comprised of the German words meer, meaning "sea," and schaum, meaning "foam."
Turning meerschaum from a block into a pipe is a lengthy process, beginning with its initial harvesting. Meerschaum deposits have been discovered in various parts of the world such as France, Spain, Morocco, the Republic of South Africa, Greece, and even the United States, but for the most part, Turkey is the main source for the meerschaum used in modern pipe making because of its purity, color and density. While some meerschaum deposits lie on the ground's surface, the majority are deeply buried and must be mined under dangerous conditions from pits and tunnels running hundreds of feet underground. Once brought to the surface, the meerschaum blocks are covered in clay but are thoroughly washed, with workers using special knives to remove the clay and any immediately evident flaws. When excavated, the meerschaum blocks are typically quite damp and must undergo a drying process to remove the moisture. This involves placing the blocks in low-temperature ovens for several weeks, or even in the sunlight, until the moisture has evaporated.
Once dry, the blocks are polished and waxed, allowing an expert grader to better determine the quality of each block while also removing any flaws, weak spots, or irregularities. During the grading process, the block's size, density, weight, color, and consistency are all taken into consideration before being shipped to the pipe-making workshop. After the blocks arrive at the factory, they are organized according to their grade and size based upon what style of pipe they're best suited for. To make carving the meerschaum blocks easier, they are soaked in water anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, depending on size, softening them to the approximate consistency of hard cheese. But if left soaking for too long, the block will disintegrate into small pieces and become unusable.
The meerschaum pipe gradually became a stylish accessory, with everyone trying to surpass one another, and most likely gave rise to the intricately carved figural pieces that are still loved by pipe smokers in the modern era.
After the block softens, it goes to a carver who is responsible for its shaping until it roughly resembles the desired final shape, shaving and cutting off the extra mass. It's then usually passed on to another artisan who drills the smoke channel and tobacco chamber, trimming it down more precisely toward its final shape before being handed off to a master craftsman. Utilizing years of training and carefully honed precision, the master artisan will complete the pipe's shaping, carving the roughly shaped bowl and into its designated form and finish. It's a demanding process — one small mistake with the lathe or cutting knife can ruin the entire bowl or destroy the entire block. The completed stummels go on to be fitted with mouthpieces that are usually attached to the stummel via a threaded tenon, though some brands, such as IMP Meerschaum, opt for a configuration that's similar to the standard push-style tenon commonly found on briar pipes.
It's also noteworthy that the leftover meerschaum scraps and chips are saved, later to be crushed and repurposed as tampers or caps on Calabash pipes. They'll sometimes be sold to other manufacturers to be turned into pressed meerschaum pipes, the scraps mixed with a bonding material and pressed into blocks to harden. As a result, the pressed blocks will have a higher density and they will not patinate or absorb color like block meerschaum and are significantly cheaper. Pipes crafted from block meerschaum tend to smoke cooler than pressed meerschaum and will patinate with time and use. Even then, block meerschaum doesn't color evenly and will naturally vary from pipe to pipe, though coloring bowls can be utilized to promote even coloring across the meerschaum's surface.
The sheer detail and exacting process that goes into crafting a meerschaum pipe is impressive and is definitely deserving of more attention.
Once completed, the stummels are dried in low-temperature ovens for between six and 12 hours, depending on their moisture level. The drying process is a crucial step since it allows the meerschaum to harden, enabling the stummel to retain a high luster and absorb more of the beeswax coating that will be applied. The stummels are sanded with sharkskin to remove small scratches that developed through handling, and are polished with a type of dried grass, since any other buffing compound will damage the material. Afterward, the stummels are placed in boiling white beeswax for a few minutes and then set out to dry before eventually being polished with a soft cloth. And to protect the pipe, oftentimes a special fitted case will be crafted for the pipe before it is shipped out for sale.
Pipe making in general is a demanding craft that takes endless hours of practice and constant refinement, with artisans devoting years to the development of their skills, And while briar is the most popular pipe-making medium currently used, meerschaum is a fascinating material that is sometimes overlooked. The sheer detail and exacting process that goes into crafting a meerschaum pipe is impressive and is definitely deserving of more attention. I was absolutely fascinated while researching the material and developed a deeper appreciation for meerschaums, especially for how artisans are able to express their creative vision on a block of mineral.
Do you own any meerschaum pipes or have you been curious about trying one? I'd love to hear what kind of meers our pipe-smoking community owns or what everyone looks for when they purchase one!
Tagged in: AKB Meershcaum History IMP Meerschaum Materials Meerschaum Pipe Basics