The Tradition and Smoking Comfort of Churchwarden Pipes

The Tradition and Smoking Comfort of Churchwardens

I've heard time and time again, especially from more experienced pipe smokers, that every collection should have at least one Churchwarden-style pipe. Churchwardens are built for comfort and relaxation. The extra-long stem of a Churchwarden provides a leisurely smoking posture from which to enjoy the bowl's contents, while also ensuring that any smoke or heat from the bowl will stay far from the eyes. It is for that second reason that Churchwardens are typically thought of as reading pipes, so much so that in Germany, a Churchwarden is known as a "Lesepfeife," which translates to "reading pipe." Churchwardens are also not defined by a particular shape, which means there are a multitude of configurations and options for pipe smokers.

To many, a Churchwarden's protracted stem and languid build may appear impractical, but these pipes aren't meant to be pragmatic. In fact, I would argue their maximalist presentation and incompatibility with day-to-day life are what make Churchwardens so unique. It's a style of pipe that demands purposeful smoking, away from the distractions of everyday life, where one can truly appreciate the act of smoking itself. In that way, it's a particularly old-world shape evocative of an era long past, a simpler time without the baggage and troubles of modernity.

One of the most unique aspects of Churchwarden pipes is how integrally bound they are to pipe history and how they've managed to retain an enduring popularity over the course of centuries. But just where did Churchwardens come from, and how are they still so popular today?

Origins

Though the design's exact history is difficult to determine, Churchwardens have existed in Europe since at least the early 16th century. During Elizabethan times, Churchwardens were popular with England's upper-classes and were even then associated with leisure. The extra length of stem required little movement when smoking in an armchair, and it was thought to produce a cooler smoke, as the smoke had to travel a great distance from the bowl to the mouthpiece. As early pipes were crafted from clay instead of briar, the working class tended to smoke shorter pipes, as they had less of a chance of breaking while laboring. Clay Churchwarden pipes were also popular in alehouses and taverns, where they were provided for paying customers to enjoy when drinking, eating, and socializing.

Just like its history, the exact manner in which the Churchwarden received its name is difficult to determine, though there are a fair number of potentially apocryphal tales. One tale traces the name's origins to the watchmen, or "churchwardens," who would guard churches at night. These wardens required a clear line of vision to fully survey the church's grounds, so they smoked long-stemmed pipes to stay vigilant without distraction. Other tales posit that the extra long stem allowed people to smoke while in Church, with the bowl either being positioned outside an open window or set on the back of a pew, depending on which version of the story one's to believe.

Sir Walter Raleigh smoking a churchwarden pipe and being doused with water

Resurgence

While Churchwardens have been an integral part of pipe history, like any shape or style of pipe, they've gone through periods of waxing and waning in popularity. But in the early 2000s, a trilogy of films was released that reintroduced Churchwarden pipes to the modern popular consciousness. Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings found Churchwarden pipes in the hands of literature and film's most iconic and beloved characters, and a whole new generation of pipe enthusiasts, particularly Churchwarden enthusiasts, was born.

Pipes and smoking were an integral part of the lived-in texture of The Lord of the Rings films, and nearly every prominent character within the Fellowship smoked a Churchwarden of some kind or another. Whether it was Gandalf quietly puffing away while contemplating an on-coming threat, or Merry and Pippin enjoying a stashed barrel of 'pipe-weed," The Lord of the Rings lovingly showcased the appeal of smoking a Churchwarden, and you'd be hard-pressed to find pipe smokers who weren't at least nominally seduced by the film's intoxicating portrayal of pipes.

Brands

In the modern era, quite a few popular pipe brands produce high-quality Churchwarden configurations, and for those who wish to experiment with a new shape, I've highlighted some particularly choice options.

Vauen

Vauen: Auenland Balbor Smooth Churchwarden (9mm) Tobacco Pipe

In response to the success and popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Vauen produced the Auenland series, a line of Churchwardens celebrating the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Each pipe in the series pairs a distinctive briar bowl to a beechwood stem lined and tipped with acrylic. Auenland pipes appear as if they've been pulled straight out of the Shire and are appropriately whimsical in fit and form. The bowls are distinctive, the finishes are rich yet pastoral, and the stems are a healthy balance between old-world construction and modern engineering.

Savinelli

Savinelli: Churchwarden Smooth (921) Tobacco Pipe

A trusted Italian brand, Savinelli produces a number of different Churchwarden configurations, many of which are more straightforward than one would find in the Auenland line. Savinelli's Churchwardens tend to be protracted renditions of shape-chart standards, so those who already have a preference in shape are likely to find something that fits their particular liking. Savinelli's "921" Dublin, "104" Billiard, and "313" Prince are all offered with Churchwarden stems and in a variety of smooth and sandblasted finishes.

Peterson

Peterson: Churchwarden Sandblasted Barrel Fishtail Tobacco Pipe

Since 1945, Peterson has manufactured a range of unique Churchwarden designs. With the Irish marque's catalog, their Churchwarden configurations are among their smallest, most lightweight pipes, forgoing the muscular aesthetic that marks a number of Peterson's designs. Their Churchwarden shapes, however, are lacking nothing in terms of style or presentation, as each piece is handsomely finished and frequently accented with a gleaming metallic band, fostering a bold yet sophisticated appearance.

The Churchwarden is among the oldest types of pipe, and over the course of its centuries-long popularity, it's been a favorite comfort pipe. It's a design specifically built for leisure and relaxation, so it's no wonder innumerable generations of pipe smokers have found themselves paired with a good book, a favorite armchair, and a long Churchwarden stem. Do you have a favorite Churchwarden pipe? Do you find it more comfortable than your other pipes? What is it that makes the style of stem so appealing to you?

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Pipe Culture

Comments

    • Don on August 26, 2022
    • Most of my pipes are Churchwardens. As a young man working and busy with life, I only smoked clinchers. Now that I’m a retired old fart 💨 with dentures, Churchwardens have replaced a large portion of my “favorite pipes” rotation.If there’s a better experience on my front porch regardless of season and weather, than enjoying a bowl of good tobacco in the evening hours puffing a Churchwarden I’m unaware of it! Having the freedom of leisure, with or without teeth🤭 I can hold and admire their graceful lines and complexions. They also seem to attract the ghosts 👻 of youth and the haints of the present. Thank all you folks who enjoy pipes in general and especially those whose leanings favor the Churchwardens.

    • Skip on August 28, 2022
    • The “iconic characters” of Lord of the Rings who practiced the art of pipe smoking were Gandalf, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, and Bilbo. Evidently Saruman smoked as well given that casks of pipeweed were found in the ruins of Isengard. Jackson makes the mistake of depicting others smoking, but that is the least of his heresies.Doubtless the films have contributed to the popularity of Churchwardens, but ask your self this: If you were undertaking a backcountry trek of six months’ duration followed by a further absence from your home of equal duration, would a Churchwarden be the pipe that you would pack along? Sign me up for a pocket pipe and a Kindle loaded with the entire legendarium.

    • Blake on August 28, 2022
    • Back in 5th grade, my parents required we read a book of our choice for 30 minutes before bedtime. The Hobbit, and trilogy were my books of choice. My father, and uncle smoked pipe. Dunhill pipes. Uncle Frank smoke a Castello too. First time I puffed a pipe was when I was in 5th grade. Always loved the look of the churchwarden, but never tried one yet. Seems like it would be leisurely to smoke, but harder to clean. I agree with Tolkein---Capstan is excellent smoke. I do enjoy that one quite bit. Enjoy yourselves, Pipesters.

    • Jeff Ashley on August 29, 2022
    • I have two Peterson Churchwarden pipes. Both in the race green and as stated they are lightweight and beautifully made. Unlike most it seems I wasn't drawn the churchwarden pipes by Tolkien I was drawn by Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. I'm still trying to find one of his pipes albeit a clay which was referred to as his 'oily clay'. Markus Fohr has similar but not quite it. Nonetheless I love my churchwarden pipes.

    • Just a fan on August 29, 2022
    • @ Jeff: Jeremy Brett totally embodies the Sherlock Holmes persona and is one of the best representatives. I own a (actually two) Savinelli black rusticated 404 (aged briar) churchwardens that look spot on to a black & white photo of him in a tux. You have to remind yourself that the clay cutty Sherlock smoked probably started out white in appearance and turned black and oily through years of comptiplation and problem solving. I also own a black Markus Fohr tavern pipe in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes. I accredit my churchwarden ( Savinelli, Stanwell, and Vauen) collection to both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle🔎 and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien⭕

    • Just a fan on August 30, 2022
    • *contemplation...damn these eyes and auto correct!!!

    • ***Lone Wolf*** on September 20, 2022
    • Totally agree with the brands mention if looking for a churchwarden. I was very pleased to see Vauen included in that list, old world German construction is very good in that part of the world and one that is rich with heritage and tradition for a modern time. Many thanks for the good read, Davin.

    • Charles Funn on October 2, 2022
    • No mention of the cob churchwardens by Missouri Meerschaum. The Shire, the Wizard and the Dublin shape. All fantastic smokers!! Funn

    • Jake Martin on October 5, 2022
    • @Skip: You couldn't be more correct in your "travelling pipe" preference; in fact, Tolkien clearly describes as flat and wide the pipe that Pippin somehow preserves intact throughout his captivity and adventures in Fangorn and then loans to Gimli in Isengard. The lovely but delicate churchwardens they smoke exclusively in the films would never survive. Bilbo does explicitly smoke a very long ("down to his knees") pipe in The Hobbit, as I recall. Tolkien himself seemed to smoke little else than straight-stem billiards.

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