We all have favorite pipes in our collections. They may change from week to week, they may switch identities, but there are always favorites. Most times I feel that whatever pipe I'm currently smoking is my favorite. Some fall in and out of favor, sometimes repeatedly. When a great pipe delivers a substandard smoke, it's because I packed the bowl wrong, but I blame the pipe nonetheless and give it a time-out to think about what it's done. Generally, it behaves when I come back to it after a week or so. Discipline is hard, but necessary.
The fastest way to figure out exactly what pipes are your favorites is to set your house on fire. Wait for the flames to get enthusiastic, then give yourself 20 seconds to save your most important pipes, after which you can save your dog and your spouse, and maybe the cat, or not, depending on your personal preferences. The cat will get out on its own, anyway, and without a thought about rescuing your pipes.
But the pipes come first. We have moments of intense clarity in emergencies, summoning superhuman powers of triage and assessment. You will have found those pipes most precious to you in only the few short minutes it takes your house to burn to the ground. However, while it's a valuable exercise, I do not recommend arson as a pipe categorization tool. Just to be clear, and in case you need a reminder: Do not burn your house down. Not even once.
We all have favorite pipes in our collections. They may change from week to week, they may switch identities, but there are always favorites.
I'm not criticizing arson. I'm a pyromaniac from youth, always attracted to campfires, bonfires, fireplaces. Our potato field caught fire when I was a boy, when my brother lit some firecrackers, and though I worked awfully hard to extinguish them, those flames were beautiful. I wonder if I became a pipesmoker partly for the excuse to play with fire all day long.
There's sometimes a difference between our favorite smokers and our favorite pipes. They often overlap, but I have pipes that I'll never let go, even though a couple aren't among the best performing pipes I have. I've mentioned that I keep only those pipes that smoke great, but I also have some with sentimental value, and they're more important to me than are the outstanding smoking instruments, though most fall into both categories. If you've been wondering what the best pipes ever made may be, you've come to the right place. Here are the two best pipes in the world, in no particular order. Coincidentally, I own both.
Randy Wiley Canadian
This Wiley is the first straight pipe I ever purchased. I had no interest in straight pipes, but this piece was on display in my local smoke shop in Tampa, and I examined it many, many times. It's the first pipe that haunted me, that wouldn't let me think clearly about anything else until I took it home.
John Sabia owned that smoke shop, and he invited me to the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show in Cincinnati in the summer of 1996, where retailers could browse all the products for their shops. I took only one pipe with me, this Wiley, and a pile of cash, because I intended to buy pipes at the show. But trade shows operate differently than I expected, and any pipes bought were shipped to John's shop back in Tampa. I smoked this Wiley a lot that week.
I had it in my teeth at the show when I met Dayton Matlick, the owner of the publishing company that had just launched Pipes and tobaccos magazine. Two issues had been published and I was eagerly awaiting the next. Unexpectedly, John told him I was a great writer and that Dayton should hire me to write an article.
John knew I was a grad student and writer but had no idea if I was any good. That didn't stop him. He's a natural salesman and Dayton was willing to give me a chance at a freelance article. Since I was smoking the Wiley, and Randy lived near Tampa, I pitched that idea. Dayton looked at my pipe, turning it over in his hands, said he was familiar with Wiley pipes, and gave me a deadline.
It's the first pipe that haunted me, that wouldn't let me think clearly about anything else until I took it home.
After submission, Dayton called to ask if I'd consider forwarding a resume. I took my time, because it was a tough decision. Dayton had to call again a couple of weeks later to convince me. I had an academic career in front of me that I'd been working toward for years, and I was already older than is best for potential tenure track positions (I invested my youth wisely, on having fun and getting in trouble, so I was a late starter). Only my dissertation on Mark Twain's satire was left to write. If I walked away now, I'd be walking away from my last chance at a teaching career. However, I was already bored with teaching composition, professional writing and, heaven help me, technical writing. I liked teaching creative writing and literature, but it was becoming obvious that I liked writing more than I liked teaching others to write, and the politics of academia had started to wither my soul. When the dean of the college pissed me off around that time, I sent the resume, and two months later, despite knowing nothing about magazine publication, I was working for P&T, finishing my degree a few years later when Dayton gave me a month off to write the dissertation before I timed out. Remember that summer issue in 2002 that arrived a month early? That was me, clearing my desk for a grueling month of non-stop scholarly writing. I doubt I'd have finished that degree except for Dayton's support and encouragement.
When I smoke this pipe, I think of the many bowls I smoked from it in John's comfortable tobacco shop, talking with other pipe guys, waiters and lawyers, roofers and academics, doctors and mail carriers, all becoming extended family in an atmosphere of dense, beautiful smoke, with stories told over pipes of briar and meerschaum and cob, each cherished by its owner and therefore by the group. It reminds me of my friendship with Dayton, one of the most influential people in my life, and the good times I had with John, one of the best friends I've known. It reminds me of the interviews with Randy Wiley for that story, and how we became lifelong friends. This pipe is even more than a symbol of friendship and experiences, though; it's a physical manifestation of the concept that lives can shift 180 degrees in a mere moment and send one careening down an unanticipated path. This pipe waved me onto a path I'm privileged to walk. I'd save it in a fire.
Larry Roush Lovat
I think of it as a saddle-bit Billiard, but technically, a Lovat just needs a shank longer than the bowl is high, making this a Lovat. Or a saddle Billiard. I don't know.
I became a fan of Roush pipes when it was too late, after he quit making pipes in 1995. I've always liked silver accents on pipes, and Larry's were the best, intricate and creative, understated and elegant. I picked up an estate Roush at a pipe show, and it was a shockingly good smoker. I'd heard good things, but was surprised nonetheless, and I started looking for more. He has a distinctive style, and many of his pipes were large for me, especially through the shank, but I found some traditional shapes that I still own and enjoy. Roush had made only 394 pipes when he shifted from pipe making back to his primary trades as a jeweler and a machinist, so it wasn't easy to find his pipes, and I finally tracked Larry down and sent him a fan letter urging him to return to pipe making, and included several issues of Pipes and tobaccos to give him an idea of what the hobby was now doing.
Astoundingly, he wrote back. He had loved pipe making, but to get his reputation going and to get pipes into the hands of collectors, he had priced his pipes so aggressively (they were around $95 new back then) that he was making only about a dollar an hour after expenses. But in the 10 years he was gone, his pipes had grown in reputation and appreciated considerably in value. Larry reported that others had also contacted him about making pipes again, and the market seemed more reasonable for sustainability, so he was coming back.
A pipe making hero of mine was returning, and I was in on it. I let him get rolling again, then flew to Ohio for an interview. It was a terrific day. Larry had dozens of his pipes on hand, the most I've ever seen in one place. None of them were his because carvers never have any of their own pipes around (one of the hardest parts of doing feature articles for P&T magazine was finding enough pipes to pictorially represent a pipe maker's work, because pipe makers don't keep finished pipes around; they have to sell those things to buy groceries). No, Larry had borrowed his pipes from a collector, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of pipes on display by one of my favorite makers. I examined each piece individually like a child unwrapping Christmas presents, each package more delightful than the last. We were emerging from a time when finding even one Roush at a pipe show was a rarity, and they appeared on eBay as infrequently as tote sacks made from the Shroud of Turin, so to see a collection of 60 or 70 Roushes was an impossibility I'd never considered.
An even cooler experience, though, was to watch one of my heroes make a pipe from a raw block. Larry asked what shape I'd like him to demonstrate making, and I told him a Lovat or Billiard, with saddle bit. I like saddle bits and wanted to see him make one. Roush mouthpieces are hand cut, of course, but Larry doesn't particularly like making saddle stems, which may partially account for his particular style, which emphasizes tapering shanks leading into tapered stems. But he did a saddle this time to accommodate me and I had a ball taking photos and asking questions as Larry Roush himself carved a pipe right in front of me. What a day that was.
A couple of weeks after the article was published, this pipe arrived at my home, the very pipe I'd watched him create. It was a surprise that made me sit directly on the floor in lightheadedness. Larry's kind note gifted me the pipe and told me how much he had enjoyed our visit.
That was in 2004, and I've been smoking this pipe a couple of times a week ever since, remembering that trip to see Larry, examining the pipe and remembering exactly where I was standing as he completed a step or modified an element. And becoming friends with someone you've admired only through their work is an experience I'd not trade under any circumstances.
I had a ball taking photos and asking questions as Larry Roush himself carved a pipe right in front of me. What a day that was.
My discovery is that the best pipes in the world are the ones that best resonate with their owners. Shape, size, and construction are each important, certainly, but when a pipe has history, when it's your friend through shared experiences, when it's been there to lend support in times of need and to celebrate momentous life events, then it's the best pipe in the world.
I have dozens of best pipes in the world. You probably do as well. What pipe was there when your kid learned to ride a bike? Which pipe accompanied you to dinner with your future spouse when you realized this was the person you wanted to share your life? What pipe was with you when you met that majestic 14-point buck standing on the hiking trail not 10 feet away? That's the best pipe in the world.
Like me, you probably own several, and I would appreciate learning about them, so please take advantage of the comment section below. Just because you own the best pipe in the world doesn't mean I can't own several myself. We all own them, and their stories help us appreciate our own pipes, and our own stories, that much more.