My admiration for the creativity and beauty of pipes drifts into related categories. Lighters, for example. I like an attractive, reliable lighter, and I have more than I can justify, though I wouldn't categorize them as a collection. I also seem to have assembled more tobacco humidors than I need, especially considering that I rarely use a humidor. And I have more pipe tampers than I have pipes, which seems counterintuitive. Tampers, however, gained my earnest attention long ago and continue to intrigue me.
I've assembled a collection that I find pleasing. There's little to connect the individual pieces thematically; I've simply purchased tampers over the years that I liked. I have some antiques, some antique reproductions, and modern designs in various materials. It's a collection perfect for my tastes, but possibly of limited interest to others.
What attracts me to pipe tampers is what attracts me to pipes. That is, much of my appreciation for pipes is not that they are artistic expressions, but that they are artistic expressions that perform a function. They are utilitarian art, like fine musical instruments. I think a tool of everyday living that is simultaneously well-designed artwork is the best way to appreciate art and craftsmanship on a personal level.
In function, there is little simpler than a pipe tamper. In fact, many profess to need no tamper whatsoever, finding the use of a forefinger adequate. Others use such items as wooden dowels, golf tees, or roofing nails, as tampers are too easy to lose to invest in anything of particular value. Similarly, some purchase only the most basic of tampers, like a Czech pipe tool or an aluminum pipe nail. I have several of those myself. They're practical for picnics, hikes or anything outdoors where dropping a tamper would be easy and finding it impossible. Such misfortune would be more difficult in the case of a valuable, artistically crafted piece.
Tampers exist in every price range for any taste. They have been made in untold numbers of exotic woods, including petrified wood and morta, and in metals such as silver, gold, bronze, tin, pewter, steel, copper, aluminum, iron...well, just about every metal has been utilized, too. Not mercury, perhaps. I'll admit that mercury is mesmerizing, but it lacks the necessary loyalty to form. Then there are tampers of bone, ivory, coral, or the teeth of various beasts. They can be intricately shaped or more simply, with a single tamping function or including additional tools like picks, spoons, shank tools, scrapers, corkscrews, blades and just about anything else possible. Many pipe artisans make special matching tampers for particular pipes. Some significant tampers are made of wood from famous structures like naval ships, churches or bridges; some were even, for a time, fashioned from the severed digits of executed criminals.
I like them all. They are self-contained tool kits for pipe smokers, they're small and easily carried, and they're just plain cool. Perhaps a severed digit tamper is not so cool, but overall, tampers are fascinating. And it's easy to add a tamper to the collection without my wife finding out, which is not only nice, but self-preserving.
Like pipes, tampers must perform a function and do it well. I prefer tampers with a shaft smaller in diameter than the foot, so I can tamp around the edges of the bowl easier. I've used all of my tampers, but they mostly sit in display cases. For daily use, I'm more particular.
I have a particular tamper I like to use in the car, for example. It's nothing fancy, just a basic stainless steel, pipe-shaped multi-tool. It's right for the car because it sits securely in the console where I can always find it without searching; it's a very particular shape and I can recognize it in my fingers without looking at it. Smoking while driving is not a time to admire a fancy tamper, after all, and car tamping is performed without visual cues.
Most of my smoking is done at a desk, because I spend most of my time at a desk, and most of that time smoking. I use two tampers for these conditions. For the charring light and the first third of the bowl, I prefer a wide, flat tamping foot. But after the halfway mark, I like a tamper that can provide a little more finesse.
My favorite tamper for utilitarian purpose is pictured below:
I bought it in Rome many years ago and have been unable to find others, though I have called the shop, but it's as perfect a tamper as I've found. The foot is angled, oval and off center so it can tamp a particular section of the tobacco, for example, or only one edge of the bowl. The foot is concave, which I like because I tend to tamp the edges of a bowl a little more firmly than the center. There's a small spoon-like indentation at the end of the shaft for dislodging dottle, and the overall shaft is thin enough to use for poking an aeration hole through a thermocline-like layer of stubborn tobacco if I've misloaded a bowl. Though the shaft is thin, it's textured for a sure grip. The tamper slides into a pipe cleaner sleeve for easy carry and is practical beyond measure for my personal tamping.
Though I have lots of beautiful tampers, I obsess about this one. I'd be inconsolable if I lost it, as it's evidently irreplaceable. There are tampers reasonably similar, and that thought brings some reassurance. Tsuge has a long tamper of similar design. Larry Roush's sterling silver pipe nail is another very good design for practical tamping. Pipemaker Russ Cook also makes a steel tamper in this basic design and has been bringing dozens with him to the Chicago show every year.
But I like this one and worry about it. I like having backups and am nervous when there's no plan B. I always have backup pipe cleaners, flints and butane on hand, so having no backup for my favorite tamper makes me discontent.
I guess I'll just have to be careful with it. I've lost it dozens of times but always found it again. But why is this inexpensive steel tamper so important when I have lots more that are far more beautiful and valuable?
The answer, I think, is utilitarianism. I value this tamper because it performs its function so admirably. Beautiful, collectible pipes that don't smoke well mean nothing to me; I won't have one in my collection. The same is true of tampers. It's the combination of beauty and performance that is attractive.