When I first learned about estate pipes, back when I didn't know a Billiard from a bathysphere, I was horrified. Used pipes? Pipes that had spent years in the mouths of who knows who smoking who knows what while cavorting with blatherskites from who knows where? Why would these pipes have any value? Sanitizing a used pipe, I reasoned, must require something like an hour in boiling water.
But I'm an adventurer, so when it was time for my second pipe, I bought an old crusty Mastercraft bent Apple for a dollar at an antique shop, and I boiled it for an hour.
I wanted that pipe clean. This was before advice from internet newsgroups or online resources existed and, admittedly, before my cognitive functions had attained the partial maturity I now enjoy. My first computer and pipe club were far in the future and I was on my own. I didn't know anyone who smoked, so I figured it out with my own brain.
But my brain failed me. That pipe came out of the water with a horribly green stem, now mostly straight instead of bent, and a grotesque, splotchy exterior that resembled a decomposing hagfish. The leftover water was putrid and viscous, saturating the kitchen with the stench of a cypress swamp on fire at low tide. My wife insisted that I throw out the pipe and cooking pot, bleach the kitchen, bathe in Pine-sol, and sleep in the garage.
I didn't tell her my first inclination had been to run it through the dishwasher with the dinner dishes. I sometimes wonder what shallow grave I'd now occupy had that impulse materialized.
Thus ended my career as a pipe restorer, but not my relationship with estate pipes. I eventually became friends with the owner of a local smoke shop, where I'd hang out and learn. He had estate pipes coming and going, and he would buff them and clean their interiors with rum, and while I didn't learn how to perform every step, at least I knew what was done. He told me that smoking estate pipes was no different than using silverware in restaurants. Thousands of people may have had that fork in their mouths, but it's perfectly clean when you need it. If an estate pipe is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, why should I have any more issues with it than a fork?
Still, I stuck to new pipes for quite a while. It wasn't until I became intrigued by artisan pipes that my interest in estates escalated, and that interest was economic. The pipes I was curious about were more costly than the under-$100 tier I'd maintained. Spending even $60 on a pipe back then seemed like ludicrous self-indulgence. But I kept reading and hearing about magical smoking instruments carved by legendary artisans in the Halls of the Norse Gods, pipes that smoked and cleaned themselves and delivered flavor hitherto reserved only for the palates of divine beings. But I didn't want to spend that kind of money until I knew the investment was sound, and I couldn't determine if it was sound until after I spent the money.
It wasn't until I became intrigued by artisan pipes that my interest in estates escalated, and that interest was economic.
It was only when a used Jess Chonowitsch bent Billiard showed up in the shop that I finally became an estate pipe enthusiast. It was irresistible and the price was, in retrospect, incredibly under value, a tenth what it would now cost, though it seemed exorbitant to me at the time and the expenditure felt a little like jumping off a building. But the pipe was too beautiful to dismiss, and I wanted to know if it really smoked better than the factory pipes I'd been smoking. I wanted to know if it was worthwhile to purchase new pipes in more expensive ranges. If this Chonowitsch smoked the same as I was already accustomed to, then this investment would save me from wasted future purchases of expensive new artisan pipes, because I was more interested in smoking characteristics than beautiful execution. It would remove the curiosity that had been gnawing at my liver and chomping on my spleen. But if it smoked considerably better, then I had a new dimension of smoking to explore.
It didn't smoke itself, but it smoked with much better draw than I'd before experienced, and while it disappointingly did require occasional cleaning, I was convinced. It smoked far better than my other pipes and I didn't know why. What was happening here? It was a transformational experience that would eventually lead me to a career exploring and writing about pipes.
I was doomed. Now I was satisfied only with pipes I couldn't afford. Nice work, me.
But estate pipes were my salvation. I could purchase high quality, handmade pipes at a terrific savings if I purchased them used, and besides, some pipes are simply not available new. Vintage classic pipes can be had only as estates, and popular artisans can have very long waiting lists. Furthermore, if I buy a new pipe, smoke it and don't like it, I can sell that pipe for only about half of what I paid. But if I buy an estate pipe and don't like it, I can recoup a much higher percentage of my investment, and if some time has passed, sometimes more than the original cost.
There are advantages other than price. Estate pipes are already broken in, which I appreciate, though most artisan pipes require little to no break-in. However, some pipes may maintain the ghost of a previous blend from a previous owner. In my experience, those ghosts are easy to smoke through, except for Erinmore, of course, the most wretched and despicable tobacco in existence, suitable only for compost and government black-site torture sessions. Shane Ireland here at Smokingpipes likes Erinmore, and I urge him to buy it all as a public service. Maybe you have your own Erinmore-like blend that would be unacceptable if ghosting a pipe. I had an estate pipe once whose Erinmore ghost haunted it for a year until, in revenge, I gleefully and repeatedly ran over it with the lawnmower (grass never again grew on that spot).
If you're an Erinmore fan, that's great, unless you try to make me smoke some. I'd rather listen to lawn furniture grinding through a wood chipper as I prepare my overdue taxes while staked to an anthill with jalapeño juice in my eyes.
By the way, we have terrific prices on Erinmore, so stock up now.
I could purchase high quality, handmade pipes at a terrific savings if I purchased them used, and besides, some pipes are simply not available new. Vintage classic pipes can be had only as estates, and popular artisans can have very long waiting lists or be otherwise unobtainable.
Another consideration is the previous owner's reason for selling a pipe, which is impossible to determine, unless you purchase directly from the owner and ask. Even so, if someone is selling a pipe, they may be reluctant to reveal that they're moving it because it doesn't smoke well. But even if that is the primary reason for the sale, it won't necessarily be a problem. I've sold pipes that didn't smoke well for me, but the new owners found them wonderful. We all load a pipe and tamp it differently, smoke different tobaccos at different humidity levels, with different cuts and with a different smoking cadence. What smokes great for me may be vile for you, and what smokes like a bar of soap for me may be among the most sublime pipes you've experienced. There are too many variables for an objective, line-by-line evaluation of smoking quality.
Just as often, though, pipesmokers rotate pipes through their collections simply because their tastes change, and it's nice to have an avenue for exchanging those pipes as our interests evolve. My first-generation pipe collection included only bent pipes, and the more wildly and exotically carved, the better. I sold those pipes gradually, following my interests as the years progressed, until now my collection has only a few bent pipes while the rest are straight Billiards, Brandys, Apples, Lovats, Canadians ... except for my Peterson system pipes, everything is a straight, traditional shape. I could not have accomplished that transformation without an active estate market.
Estate pipes are already broken in, which I appreciate, though most artisan pipes require little to no break-in.
For those collections that have themes, estate pipes are often the best way to fill them. Pre-transition Barlings, those made when the Barling family owned and oversaw manufacturing, are fantastic pipes, but you won't find them new because that era ended on October 3, 1960, when the family sold the business. If you want to collect pre-transition Barlings, estates are your only recourse. If you collect Bulldogs from French manufacturers, or paneled Dunhill Shells, or smooth Billiards, or sandblasted Blowfish, or pipes made in your birth year, or Cavaliers with filigree silver bands and Charles Dickens portraits etched on the bowls, the estate market will be your best source.
Where to Find Estates
Once I'd established that estate pipes are wonderful opportunities rather than repulsive, recycled rubbish, my purchasing power doubled. However, I soon learned that bargain antique shop pipes and, later, eBay purchases, are risky. There are eBay sellers with excellent reputations who specialize in pipes, and they're fine, but eBay also hosts every oxidized, spider-infested pipe unearthed in an old barn, cellar, or attic. Vendors who don't know pipes should probably be avoided, because they can't answer condition questions intelligently. They aren't going to ream the pipe and check for char, because they don't know how to ream a pipe or what char looks like. They've photographed a bent pipe with the stem upside down, for heaven's sake; they can't tell you if the smoke hole is well aligned or if the slot has been funneled.
There were reputable outlets for estates in my early smoking years though, and I found them. Barry Levin at that time was sending out photo prints of estate pipes, a couple dozen per photo, and those who received them would get out magnifying glasses and examine the candidates, then try for our first, second, third and fourth choices and hope one of them was still available. They were good pipes, refurbished by J.T. Cooke, and Barry's mailer was a game changer. Steve Leaders of Texas was also good, and his mailers of estates were equally enticing.
In 2000, Sykes Wilford launched Smokingpipes.com and revolutionized online pipe sales by providing images and prose that approximated in-person sales as closely as possible, furnishing pipesmokers with the pertinent information even without physically holding a pipe.
Unfortunately, Barry passed, too young and too unexpectedly. But the internet was beginning to limp along by then, and pipes gradually came online. It was the wild west for a time, figuring out who could run an estate pipe business efficiently and who couldn't, who could be trusted, who cleaned and assessed pipes before sale and who left them as-is.
Since you're reading these words online, I presume you know about current online resources. It's a little more sophisticated now, with multiple reputable vendors showcasing their wares with photos, measurements, weights, brand histories, and descriptions. In 2000, Sykes Wilford launched Smokingpipes.com and revolutionized online pipe sales by providing images and prose that approximated in-person sales as closely as possible, furnishing pipesmokers with as much pertinent information as possible without physically holding a pipe. Many at that time said it couldn't be done, that no one would buy a pipe they hadn't personally seen and held. That's arguably still the best dynamic for pipe purchases, but the Smokingpipes model was close, and people responded, including me, because it made pipes available that couldn't be found locally.
We also have the Pipe Locator, a nifty tool for browsing available pipes on the Smokingpipes site. It's linked in a drop down menu under "Pipes." There are thousands of pipes on the site, so browsing them can be intimidating, but with the Pipe Locator, you can look for new or estate pipes, in particular finishes or shapes, by particular makers or groups of makers, by country, size, weight, whatever your individual preferences may be. I've added a few pipes to my collection by playing around with the Pipe Locator and finding pieces I didn't know were there.
What to Look For
When buying estates, it's helpful to know what you're buying. Do a little research, see what the brand in the same finish is selling for elsewhere online, get an idea of the pipe's value, and if it's reasonable, buy it. Avoid eBay bidding wars; there will be other pipes.
Find online sources you can trust. With the number of pipe forums at our disposal, there are always fellow pipesmokers who will make personal recommendations, and it's relatively easy to build a list of reputable estate vendors. Some sell pipes in the same condition they receive them, some refurbish them. However, things get complicated again at this stage, because you'll want to know how these businesses prepare their pipes. We've described our process here: maintaining the integrity of the pipe while thoroughly cleaning it without heroic measures that may devalue the piece. But some employ measures that collectors avoid, such as "topping" a pipe; that is, sanding the rim down to remove char and refinishing it. That may be fine for some, but it is not a way to maintain value. Refinishing, sanding out the tobacco chamber and re-coating it, and over buffing the stem, are all hazards to watch for.
Watch also for replacement stems on estate pipes, which can devalue a pipe. It's an unusual find, but sometimes a replacement stem can be superior to its original. I've had new stems made for relatively inexpensive pipes and transformed them into excellent smokers. In the artisan tiers, though, the very best replacement stem for maintaining value is one made by the original carver of the pipe. For cheaper pipes, modified production stems are used as replacements, and they may not permit a pipe to perform at its maximum potential. It's always best to have the original stem in case of resale, though, even if you have a superior new stem you use for smoking.
Buy what you like. Chances are good that you'll end up selling pipes that have been acquired only to represent some arbitrary rubric.
All of that is immaterial if what you're looking for is a camping or fishing pipe you won't cry about when a bear eats it. The estate market is particularly exciting for these applications. Workhorse estate pipes can be almost affordably disposable.
It's important that you buy what you like. Some people derive pleasure from filling a missing category in their collections; some prefer individual makers, some prefer specific shapes or finishes or years of manufacture. We must each decide for ourselves, but ultimately I determined that I would keep only those pipes that smoked great (except for a few with sentimental value). I spent far too much money and time trying to fill out a theme for my collection. I collected only horns for a while, but found I don't like horns and the shape is not efficient for me. Then I tried collecting Lovats in every brand I could find, but even while I was going to great trouble for pipes I needed, I wasn't enjoying them all that much, and I was still attracted to variants like Canadians and Billiards.
So buy what appeals to you. Chances are good that you'll end up selling pipes that have been acquired only to represent some arbitrary collection rubric. Second, spend what you can afford. If you're like me, any attempt at finding less expensive options has resulted in more expense than it could have been. If you fall in love with a pipe and decide to purchase something similar but less expensive, you will not have removed that original pipe from your thoughts. It will pursue you through your dreams as well as your waking hours until you relent and purchase it, ending up with two pipes, one that you wanted and one that doesn't compete well with the original.
Estate pipes stretch our spending potential, bringing pipes within reach that may not be affordable when new.
I've had particular shapes by Lars Ivarsson and Jess Chonowitsch replicated by other pipemakers I greatly admire, because I loved the shapes but the attainment of the originals was impossible because of price and availability. While I enjoyed those replacement pipes for a time, they never measured up to my mental image, and I eventually let them go. Now, if I can find a way to afford a pipe that's captured my imagination, that's the one I buy, and if I can't afford it, I don't try to find a substitute. There are no substitutes. I could have saved ridiculous quantities of money had I known that 20 years ago. However, that's my own psychology fumbling about; it may indeed be the best strategy for others.
If you've avoided estate pipes, you may be surprised at how pristine they can be when refurbished by an experienced restorer. They're clean, and they can look brand new, especially if their original condition is good. Estate pipes stretch our spending potential, bringing pipes within reach that may not be affordable when new. Instead of spending thousands of dollars for all the pipes you become curious about, you can spend half that for used versions and satisfy your curiosity without transferring your kid from Cornell University to Blanche's Route 4 School of Hairdressing and Tractor Repair. There are amazing pipes on the estate market, and they keep appearing, exciting pieces showing up all the time, especially here at Smokingpipes, where we list hundreds of fresh estates every month and maintain a secure commitment to the estate pipes that are such an enormous benefit to our hobby.