There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as a good pipe—the sweet scent, the smoke rising in gentle clouds, the feel of finely crafted briar in your hand. Then add a good conversation with another man, or even just gazing into space while sitting on your front porch, and you get a wonderful, time-honored, and manly hobby.
Since starting this blog, I have gotten a number of comments and questions about pipe smoking. It’s understandable, as smoking has a long and venerable tradition among men, and especially among Catholics. G.K. Chesterton, Pope St. Pius X, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, and St. Damian of Molokai are just some of the famous Catholic smokers. If you take up smoking, you’re in good company.
Because I’ve gotten so many inquiries on this hobby, I’ve decided to share a few basics on how to get started.
Smoking has gotten a serious black eye due to cigarettes. But pipes and cigarettes are quantitatively different. You don’t inhale pipe smoke, it isn’t addictive (I can easily drop it for weeks at a time), and most importantly, pipe tobacco isn’t loaded with thousands of cancer causing chemicals like cigarettes are. It’s also a whole lot cheaper.
For those who say that we shouldn’t smoke because it isn’t healthy, I will simply answer that neither is eating processed foods laden with preservatives, drinking soda (or anything with high fructose corn syrup), consuming alcohol in large quantities, or eating processed sugars. But we all do those things anyway—in moderation, of course.
As virtuous Catholic men, we practice the virtue of temperance. Moderation in all things is the best rule, and that applies to smoking as well as eating Twinkies.
Different Kinds of Pipes
There are three main types of pipes that you will find on the market. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. There’s a lot to consider, but for beginners, what you are primarily looking for is a pipe that will smoke cool, that will bring out the natural flavor of your tobacco, and that will feel good in the hand.
1. Briar – Briar pipes are the most common, and they are what most people think of when they imagine a pipe smoker. As the name implies, these pipes are made from the dense roots of the Briar plant. Being the most popular kind of pipe, there are countless varieties of finishes, textures, shapes, and levels of quality available. You can literally spend anywhere from $10 on a low end briar (not recommended) all the way up to $10,000 for a hand-crafted briar (also not recommended).
2. Meerschaum – Meerschaum pipes are made from a soft, white mineral. While I’ve never smoked one, I hear that they are consistently enjoyable and they do not require a break in period like briar pipes. Because they are made from a soft stone, meerschaum pipes are usually carved into intricate designs. You can buy a pipe carved like a pirate if you want. While these can be highly unique and eye catching pipes, keep in mind that you do have to hold it, and something that is intricately carved may not feel so great in the hand. Prices are generally on the low end, usually around $40-$60
3. Corncob – Obviously, these pipes are made from aged corncobs, and they are by far the cheapest type of pipe. You can get them for as low as $3. But despite their low cost, corncobs provide a great smoke—on par with many more expensive briars. Because of this, many choose to smoke them exclusively. While I own some briars, I find myself gravitating to my corncobs frequently.
Types of Tobacco
There are many different types of tobacco, but I’ll just cover the three main types.
English – This type of tobacco has no additive and is generally stronger smelling and tasting. This isn’t the sweet smelling tobaccos your grandpa smoked. On the other hand, it is probably what C.S. Lewis or Tolkien smoked. I do not recommend this type of tobacco for beginners, but if you go for the strong stuff, give it a try.
Cavendish – This type of tobacco is kind of like candy. It comes in all kinds of flavors—anything from chocolate to cherry—and is mild, sweet, and smells great. I recommend you start with a Cavendish tobacco or a blend that contains it.
Virginia – Virginias age well and are good for storage over long periods. You have to smoke them slowly your you will get “tongue bite,” which basically means your tongue will begin to sting if you smoke too fast. This type of tobacco is generally included in blends with other types of tobaccos.
Where to Start
Now that we’ve covered the basics, you may wonder what type of pipe and tobacco you should buy first. Here are some suggestions.
Pipes – Personally, I would start with a corncob. The only place you should buy them is Missouri Meerschaum—the oldest corncob maker in the world, and supplier of pipes for such legendary men as General MacArthur. Do not buy them from Chinese knockoff manufacturers. They will literally disintegrate in your hand. As I mentioned above, corncobs are highly affordable and the provide a great smoke.
If you really want a briar, I would suggest starting with something from Savinelli. They are affordable as briars go, and they will last a lifetime.
I generally would avoid eBay. While there are some great deals, you have to know what you are doing and what to look for. I once bought a pipe that looked great in the photos, but when I received it, it was more like a toy than a useable pipe. It was junk. I would be careful.
Tobacco – Tobacco, like alcohol, is a matter of taste. That said, I would highly recommend starting with Captain Black tobacco. It is sweet and cool to smoke, it smells great, and you can find it anywhere. Your nearest Walmart, gas station, or Walgreens should have it.
Pipe smoking, like any hobby worth having, is a learning experience that requires patience. I am learning new tricks of the trade all the time, and I am building my pipe collection slowly. You can dabble and still enjoy it, or you can become a connoisseur and spend a lot of time and money learning the ins and outs of different pipes and tobaccos. The most important thing is have fun, and enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation.
Any questions? Did I miss anything? If you’re a pipe smoker, what tips do you have to share?